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Sunday, October 6, 2013

THE WIZARD OF OZ 3D: 75TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Blu-ray 3D/ Blu-ray/ Digital HD) -- review by porfle

When I was a kid, the annual airing of the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" on network primetime TV was almost as highly-anticipated a yearly tradition as Halloween or even Christmas.  Kids such as myself would scramble to get all their worldly affairs in order and move heaven and earth to make sure they were securely situated in front of a TV set, with no distractions, when that MGM lion roared and Oscar-winning composer Herb Stothart's familiar fanfare blared forth in all its glory.

Of course, we had to watch it right then and there because that was our only chance, and we knew it wouldn't come around for another year.  Now, however, you ungrateful young whippersnappers have the luxury of popping in Warner Brothers' snazzy new Blu-Ray 3D/ Blu-Ray/ Digital HD combo set THE WIZARD OF OZ 3D: 75TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION.   It even has a pulse-poundin' 3D cover pic and everything! 

But aside from how brand spanking new it looks and sounds in this latest Blu-Ray edition (which it does) or how cool it must look in 3D for you luckies who have 3D players (which I don't), the film itself is still the main prize.   Arguably the most beloved motion picture ever made, "The Wizard of Oz" set the Technicolor standard for opulent film musicals that has yet to be surpassed.  Some describe it as "the perfect movie"--indeed, it's practically beyond criticism no matter how many IMDb trolls snipe about how "boring" or "dated" they imagine any classic from the 1900s to be.  Few films are still this delightfully fresh and downright stunning almost 75 years after their initial release.  

The 16-year-old Judy Garland is extraordinarily endearing in her sincere, earnest  performance as Kansas farmgirl Dorothy Gale, who,  threatened by hateful neighbor Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) to have her beloved dog Toto destroyed, runs away from the home where she lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  After a kindly traveling fortune teller named Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) persuades her to return home, she does so just in time to encounter a raging tornado that knocks her unconscious, sending her on a dream journey over the rainbow to the fairytale land of Oz.

Despite the many wonders she finds there, Dorothy's only wish is to get back home.  A good witch named Glinda (Billie Burke) advises her to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City,  where the wonderful Wizard of Oz may be able to help her.  Along  the way she makes friends with a scarecrow who wishes for a brain, a tin man who desires a heart, and a cowardly lion seeking the courage he lacks.  But before granting their wishes, the Wizard demands that they prove their worthiness by bringing him the broomstick of the dreaded Wicked Witch of the West, the most evil and fearsome creature in all of Oz.

The bleak and moody depictions of a flat gray Kansas landscape (its evocative, almost impressionistic interior sets are all dusty plains and miles of wire fences and telephone poles) immediately get "The Wizard of Oz" off to a heady start visually.  Dorothy gains our sympathy by being a typical teen who yearns to experience life but is all but ignored by the adults around her.  Her song, "Over the Rainbow", is both an amazing display of the youthful Judy Garland's mature vocal talent and an emotional highpoint for the film's misty-eyed fans.

Before we've even gotten out of Kansas comes one of the most thrilling special effects sequences of all time.   They made a whole movie filled with CGI tornadoes back in 1996 but not one of them could match the awe-inspiring sight of that one monstrous cyclone bearing down on Dorothy's tiny farmhouse as she scrambles for shelter.  Indeed, this segment of the film rivals 1933's "King Kong" as a breathtaking tour-de-force of sheer special-effects audacity.

After a dazzling switch-over from sepia to Technicolor, what follows in the "Oz" scenes is a succession of musical setpieces that are among the most whimsical and enchanting ever conceived for the screen.  Dorothy's encounter with the Munchkins (played by the Singer Midgets) is a delight, as are her encounters with the Scarecrow (rubber-limbed dancer Ray Bolger),  the Tin Woodsman (Jack Haley, Jr.), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and their joyous arrival in the Emerald City--all carried along by the infinitely memorable songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

The visuals exude a richly atmospheric fairytale quality which, just like the illustrations in the original L. Frank Baum books, is inspired by the old European tales but with a distinctly American flavor.  (This is reflected also in Bert Lahr's very Brooklynesque lion with his amusingly lowbrow vaudevillian schtick.)  A combination of colorful painted backdrops, sumptuous matte paintings, and elaborate sets, the backdrops for Dorothy's adventures are always a feast for the eyes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the climactic sequence in the foreboding mountaintop castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.  If "The Wizard of Oz" is a journey through Dorothy's subconscious mind, then this segment of the film must surely be, from a child's point of view, the most terrifying Freudian nightmare ever filmed. 

Captured by the Witch's bizarre army of  flying monkeys (another impressive practical effect), Dorothy's life is first measured by the sands of an hourglass ("See that?  That's how long you've got to be alive!  And it isn't long, my pretty--it isn't long!") and then by one of the most potent threats ever leveled in a children's film: "The last to go will see the first three go before her...and her mangy little dog, too!"  A considerable amount of suspense and excitement are generated in this sequence as Dorothy's three reluctant friends conquer their imagined inadequacies and attempt to rescue her.

Here, Margaret Hamilton plays her part to the hilt and is the quintessential wicked witch in one of the movie's two (at least) Oscar-level performances.  The other, of course, is that of Judy Garland,  who did receive an honorary Oscar that year for her body of work up to and including "The Wizard of Oz."  Judy is wonderfully natural and appealing in the role, and much more realistic than Shirley Temple, whom MGM originally wanted,  would have been.  It's easy for kids to identify with her because of this natural quality,  while Temple's more artificial cuteness appeals mainly to adults.

The Blu-ray 3D/ Blu-ray/ Digital HD combo from Warner Brothers is in 16x9 widescreen with 5.1 Dolby sound and original mono.  There's an entertaining and informative new documentary,  "The Making of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz", that lasts over an hour, plus original and re-release trailers, various radio programs (one is an adaptation of the film itself), extensive photo galleries, and a "jukebox" containing songs and musical cues including alternate and interrupted takes. 

Reappearing from the earlier 70th Anniversary Edition is a commentary track hosted by Sydney Pollack and featuring Oz historian John Fricke along with archival cast and crew comments, an animated storybook condensation of Baum's original book narrated by Angela Lansbury,  a brief biographical sketch of each of the leads (Toto, too!) entitled "We Haven't Really Met Properly",  a music and effects track, and a sing-along song menu.

Like "Star Wars", the later watershed film classic that it partially inspired, THE WIZARD OF OZ remains a marvel of thrilling special-effects wizardry and all-around cinematic creativity that no amount of CGI could ever surpass.  More importantly, though, it's one of the most engaging, heartfelt, and purely sentimental adventures to ever grace the silver screen.  With a simple beauty that still evokes tears of joy in its fans, this beloved classic demonstrates that not only is there "no place like home", but that in each of us lies wisdom, compassion,  and courage if we but look for it. 

Buy it at
Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/HD combo
Special Collectors' Edition

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