“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!”
There are a ton of kids movies out there, but there’s just something magical about The Wizard of Oz that’s endured for 80 years—and will for many more. Directed mostly by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) and starring Judy Garland, this film has sold so many copies and had so many television screenings that it very well might be the most watched film of all time—the Library of Congress seems to think so. I’d seen this film at least ten times, but recently had the chance to watch it with my four-year-old nephew. That’s really how this film should be viewed: as a child, or with a child. The visuals, the plot elements, and the characters all set the imagination into motion, and it’s because every part of this film was meticulously planned and executed. Though the film may be a bit campy for adults, it’s an undeniably classic film that’s not only the best of its time—it may be the best of the medium.
But before we dive in, a quick public service announcement. If you know someone or meet someone from Kansas, do not ask us to say hi to Dorothy or Toto for you. We are so sick of that shit. That out of the way, let’s look at the plot.
The plot follows Dorothy Gale, a young woman of indeterminate age, as she stays with her aunt and uncle in Kansas. She runs away from home and a tornado carries her off to the land of Oz, a magical world where witches and wizards vie for control. When Dorothy arrives, she accidentally kills one such evil witch, and the evil witch’s sister, who is also an evil witch, demands the ruby slippers that have magically appeared on Dorothy’s feet. At the insistence of a good witch, Dorothy refuses. She then sets out on a journey to meet the great Wizard of Oz, who holds the power to send her back to her world. Along the way, she meets some new friends who also need the Wizard’s help. But the Wicked Witch is always right behind her, trying to get the ruby slippers back.
I don’t know. But, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?
I’ve mentioned the magic of this film, and that’s mostly due to the amount of care and detail they put into bringing the land of Oz to life. It’s often said that this was the first movie in color, and that’s mostly true; it was the first wide-release feature-length film in color. Of course other films were in color before this, but this was the first real movie, with a real movie budget, to use the technology. And it uses it to great effect. When Dorothy steps out of her black and white Kansas farmhouse into the colorful world of Oz, it’s a powerful metaphor for how much more alive this world is. The sets are meticulously designed and built so that cheap set pieces don’t detract from the immersion in this magical world. Of course some of the effects look dated today, but they still look surprisingly good, especially when compared to some of the CGI sets today.
Great care was given to the characters as well, and they all have charm in their own ways. The Cowardly Lion’s costume was made from a real lion and weighed 90 pounds. Actor Bert Lahr was constantly sweating on set and the costume had to be dry cleaned regularly. The great Wizard of Oz himself was given a coat from a thrift store to wear, and it was later discovered that the coat had belonged to L. Frank Baum, the author of the original books. Upon completion of the film, the coat was given to his family, who was glad to have it back. The Wicked Witch performed so well that many of her scenes were editing down or cut entirely, as they were deemed too frightening for children. The full versions have never been released.
One thing I caught this viewing that I hadn’t before was how empowering this film was for women, and it was decades ahead of its time in that regard. Every character that holds any real power is female, as even the great and powerful Oz is shown to lack any real power of his own. The most powerful characters are undoubtedly the two witches that we see, but Dorothy is a strong character even without any special powers. Dorothy’s three companions are male, but it’s Dorothy who really inspires them to change and moves the plot forward. This all happens subtly without distracting from the story, but it’s great to see, especially from an era when most female film characters existed mainly as plot devices for the more important male characters.
The Wizard of Oz is one of those films I think everyone should see, and it’s also one that almost everyone has seen. The characters and sets have become a timeless part of our culture, and there are still people who dress up like these instantly-recognizable characters every year for Halloween. This is a film I watched growing up, and I’m happy to say that it holds up well now that I’m an adult. The song and dance numbers are a little goofy, but I can really appreciate the character development and attention to detail in the film in a way that I couldn’t as a child. This movie has endured for 80 years, and I have no doubt that people will still be watching it in another 80 years, being transported to the magical land of Oz just as their great grandparents were. That’s an achievement in film that few others can lay claim to, and it goes to show how much of a classic this film is.
Director: Victor Fleming
Genres: adventure, fantasy, musical