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You have every reason to be skeptical. We’ve suffered years of 3D cash-grabs. This spring visited upon us a cheap-jack James Franco grimacing through the stubbornly un-magical Oz the Great and Powerful. And the movies have only gotten L. Frank Baum right precisely once, in 1939. Return to Oz,Walter Murch’s electroshock horror show, has its admirers, but would you leave a kid alone with it? And have you seen Larry Semon’s 1925 cock-up, in which a goose vomits in a farmhand’s face?
So, yes, it stands to reason that a 3D IMAX Wizard of Oz in 2013 would be at best a vulgar folly—something familiar all tricked out and puffed up, a special-effects humbug on par with the smoke bombs and pyrotechnics of that sad Kansas huckster hiding behind that Emerald City curtain.
It’s not. It’s un-ruined, still grand, still human, still stagebound and performance-driven in that wonderful way that the movies have lost now that filmmakers are reared on video games rather than theater. Even swollen to IMAX size, the movie is sharper than you’ve ever seen it, and the vaudevillian brilliance of the choreography (and Ray Bolger’s straw-boned tumbling) is entirely undiminished. At times, it’s even a revelation, although the 3D demands you hold your head just so.
The mad scale has never been clearer—or more overwhelming. Dorothy’s welcomed by more than 100 Munchkins, and for the first time you can truly see their faces, their flowered shoes, the ginger-tinged cowlicks and hair-horns appliquéd to their shaven heads.
When Judy Garland first skips down that yellow brick road, the Munchkins gather behind her, skipping, too, a sugar rush of smiles and kicks and incomparably goony hats. It’s quite possibly the happiest moment in cinema, besting even Gene Kelly’s rain dance and capping a parade of delights: the twister,”Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead,” that absurd singing coroner with the conquistador’s beard, the union toughs of the Lollipop Guild, “and your little dog, too!”, those stockinged feet curling up beneath Dorothy’s house. The penultimate shot of the first “We’re Off to See the Wizard” is such a marvel of staging, costumes, scoring, and movement that it should inspire the humiliated self-meltdown of all Macs at all the effects houses that worked on making Zach Braff into a monkey bellhop for Oz the Great and Powerful. This is peak human achievement, and seeing it like this is like seeing the world you thought you knew on the day you get new glasses.
Getting a better glimpse than ever of the seam between set and backdrop or poppy field and matte painting is no betrayal of the spell. Instead, it’s an invitation to admire the craft, to revel in the illusion-making. This feels appropriate, since the movie (unlike the book) celebrates the ability of each of us to find magic within ourselves, even if we have to fake it a little.
The movie never tops Munchkinland, but how could it? The movies have never topped it, either. But what follows is another revelation, this one about the possibilities of 3D and IMAX rather than just new details in The Wizard of Oz. The immensity of these screens hasn’t done much to make the digital flimflammery of today’s blockbusters more impressive. But it can honor human performance, if given the chance. Garland, Bolger, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, and the rest are each the size of a house, and they’re so physically, theatrically inventive in their roles that there’s plenty to gape at in all the extra yardage. See the way Lahr, that superlative clown, is forever worrying his own tail like a security blanket, or how Bolger, as the Scarecrow, knocks about each in scene, spilling his hay even when the focus isn’t on him—or how his facial makeup is rigorously scored and crosshatched to achieve a burlap look that could hardly be done justice by the projectors of 1939. (Another new detail: One chunk of yellow brick road that he crashes onto knees-first is clearly yellow foam.) Garland, it turns out, had pores and freckles that complement her courageous, guileless turn as a girl so much more naïve than herself, one steely and dreamy as hell, yet for some reason eager to dash her promised land away for the first ticket back to Mudball, Kansas.
With so much to relish, this blown-up Oz creates a serious challenge for viewers. Who to invest your attention in when the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion are all onscreen together?
The Lion, of course.
When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz lived on TV, part movie and part ritual. One thing in it I found fascinating was the many ways it anticipated Star Wars, which back then was a for-all-people phenomenon rather than a geek-specific one. Here’s the clanking metal man, the furred and fearsome companion, the pure-hearted princess, the impregnable fortress, the consummate villain, the farm-kid hero with the power to triumph held inside all along.
It occurred to me, as I thrilled to this 75th anniversary release, that the gulf of time between the premieres of The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars is just barely longer than that between the premiere of Star Wars and today. Consider the artistic achievements of the studios in that first gulf versus all that they managed in the second. Then, to cheer yourself up, you may as well return to Oz.