The James Clayton Column : Why The Wizard Of Oz is wonderful

In anticipation of Sam Raimi's Oz The Great And Powerful, James explains why 1939's The Wizard Of Oz is one of the finest films ever made...

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, because Sam Raimi has swept us up for a blockbuster return to Oz with freshly pressed origins story Oz The Great And Powerful.

I’m excited about this, and my mind is slightly Ozzled as I get amped up to go back to merry old land of Oz where they laugh the day away with a ha ha ha, ho ho ho and a couple of tra-la las. Memories of flying monkeys, Munchkins and melting witches come a-flying. I’m a strawbrained sentimental soul and I find myself weirded out and wonderstruck as I build up to the horse of a different colour that the Evil Dead and Spider-Man director is delivering unto us.

Why am I so affected? Because Oz The Great And Powerful – starring James Franco as the title character and Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michele Williams as the land’s witches – is a prequel, and that leads me to ruminate on the original film it’s setting up in retrospect.

That original film, the 1939 MGM musical The Wizard Of Oz, is something that I consider to be one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. I say that as someone who isn’t keen to toss such labels around casually, but this movie demands and deserves it. The Wizard Of Oz is something very special and I’m glad that Raimi’s new Oz-buster has given me good reason to reflect upon its resonant power and beauty.

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In my ideal world where I’m a benevolent dictator-wizard, every child would be forced to watch three specific live-action films before they reach the age of five. Even outside of my utopian fantasy, I genuinely believe that kids should have the following three flicks screened for them for their essential development as intelligent, empathetic organisms.

Those three movies are Star Wars (no explanation needed, right?), The Sound Of Music (I’ll explain that another time) and The Wizard Of Oz. If Star Wars is too niche, The Wizard Of Oz is perhaps the most vital, and I’d urge every parent to push it alongside basic numeracy and the alphabet before their infants reach school age.

So, why The Wizard Of Oz, and what makes it a supreme work of cinema? Historically, it’s monumental yet also stands up as an entertaining movie on its own terms in spite of its infamy. It’s a rich work that offers something for everyone and embodies cinematic suspension of disbelief and the power of fantasy perhaps better than any other vintage family-friendly film.

I’ll tackle the historical aspect before I start gushing and getting sappy about Munchkin singalongs. In brief, The Wizard Of Oz out-Citizen Kanes Citizen Kane in that it basically took all the toys out the toybox, used all the known tricks of the filmmaking trade and whizzed ‘em up all up in a blender to create a crazed concoction that splashed all over pop culture.

As was the case with Citizen Kane (which surfaced two years later in 1941), pop culture didn’t necessarily know it had been tornadoed and touched by something tremendous, but it had nonetheless. My own personal view is that The Wizard Of Oz marks one of time’s major turning points in 20th century art.

Recall the movie and remember that it was released in 1939, and you begin to appreciate just how idiosyncratic and revolutionary it is. This is a major studio production cranked out of the mainstream Hollywood structure, and it’s an adaptation of a well-known work of literature. There isn’t an immense amount of risk yet what emerged was a multifaceted marvel that’s outstandingly radical when you note the zeitgeist around.

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We’re dealing with a relatively conservative age when cinema was still young and developing, but The Wizard Of Oz is so conspicuously divergent and, quite frankly, bizarre that it’s baffling. It’s small wonder that it wasn’t appreciated until long after its release and it’s unsurprising that it took a while to really make its mark.

An adaptation of novels written by L Frank Baum for children, it might be the first live-action motion picture consciously made to appeal to family audiences. It follows 30s Universal horror trailblazers (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, etc) in manipulates popular literary source material, and turns it into a piece of pure cinema, using all the possibilities of mise-en-scène the medium allows.

The Wizard Of Oz, however, goes even further in that it uses film technique to create an entirely new fantasy world totally detached from mundane reality, altogether enhancing a relatively straightforward narrative and magically making it up into a sensual spectacle the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.

Stylistically, it plays like a maverick. The movie delves into different genres, alternating between the song-and-dance numbers of musicals, comedy, action and adventure and then to the dark suspense of horror.

The tonal swings are striking as is the chromatic shift from the sepia hues of Kansas to the contrasting Technicolor vibrancy of outlandish Oz. It’s an inspired, innovative stroke of genius from a storytelling point of view and The Wizard Of Oz is so powerfully potent as a visual feature because of the way it pushes its rainbow pallet and makes colour (still not quite the industry standard) an essential aspect of the whole experience.

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The special effects, dreamlike fantasy and all-out exuberance provided by Judy Garland and her fellow cast members meld marvellously. The irrepressible effervescent energy that The Wizard Of Oz offers up marks it out as a unique eccentric in a grey world on the verge of World War II and altogether it emerges as a sweet modern myth – an all-singing, all-dancing American fairytale.

This is partly why I perceive this picture to be an absolute paragon of the cinematic arts and something that everyone needs to see and appreciate. It’s a holistic expression of the format’s optimum potential and a glorious multisensory storytelling showcase that in sublime, self-aware fashion takes a text and uses it as the basis on which to flamboyantly celebrate film.

It’s encapsulated in the immortal words of the Great and Powerful himself: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The Wizard Of Oz overwhelms us with stimuli and encourages us to suspend our scepticism, forget the artificiality of it all and lose ourselves in an escapist fantasy where dreams come to life and the impossible becomes possible. In essence, this is what film as pure entertainment is all about.

Ideas and imagination become more important than imminent relatable reality in this space. Indeed, a great amount of depth and cerebral activity underpins the surface razzle-dazzle of The Wizard Of Oz. More than just a feast for eyes and ears, the film’s an accessible intellectual property that explores the human condition and embodies critical themes and concepts.

Again, for this reason I recommend this coming-of-age allegory for children and, I guess, adults as they follow their own personal yellow brick road and pursue their own life journey. I’d actually identify The Wizard Of Oz as Hollywood’s first explicit self-help flick in that it acts as a psychological masseuse as well as an all-inclusive wish-fulfilment whimsy trip and magic show.

The quest undertaken by Dorothy and her friends effectively outlines to audiences that all the tools they need and all the things they aspire to reach lie within them. It’s the most entertaining, straightforward motivational ever committed to screen and also one of the greatest films about growing up. (Whether you accept that the ruby slippers symbolise first menstruation or not, Dorothy’s story is definitely a rite-of-passage narrative in which she rises to maturity and embraces young adulthood).

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Rife with symbolism and open to a myriad of possible readings, the film lasts as an artwork of great substance and meaning both on an individual and social level. You can take it as a rally for optimism in an era of depression, a feminist fable, a subtextual celebration of homosexuality and sexual ‘deviancy’ or, alternately, the reinforcement of conservative politics and blue-collar values.

Such is the all-encompassing, ambiguous wonder of The Wizard Of Oz, but most of all I interpret it as a celebration of the human spirit. Consider the key things that Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are searching for and you’ll find the fundamental elements that everyone ideally needs in order to thrive: brains, heart, courage and a sense of home.

In his review of last year’s sci-fi thriller Looper, Kim Newman remarked that the film “pulls off the full Wizard Of Oz: it has brains, courage and heart”. That, for me, is a beautiful way of summing up what all films should aspire to, and it highlights why The Wizard Of Oz is a masterpiece.

Its brains, heart and courage echo through the ages as its ultimate legacy – a legacy carried along by unforgettable images, characters, lyrics and lines. You don’t have to go far to find some reference to the film (The Matrix, Django Unchained and so many more) and you can catch hints of its influence in every subsequent fantasy film and in the allusions of auteurs like David Lynch and the Coen Brothers among others.

The Wizard Of Oz is all the more incredible if you note its difficult production and the fact that it involved twenty writers and numerous uncredited directors alongside Victor Fleming. In spite of all of that and initial audience indifference it works out as a potent singular vision that manages to be simultaneously entertaining, moving, thrilling and funny.

That, I suppose, is testimony to the iconic core mythology and its inspired adaptation to screen. The Wizard Of Oz operates effectively on so many levels and has a timeless relevance and relatability that ensures it remains as a pop cultural colossus and one of the most essential motion picture experiences you can have.

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It is truly wonderful, truly great and truly powerful. The essentials of cinema and the essentials of life are all there in this sweet story wrapped up in spectacular packaging. Brains, courage and heart, indeed. There’s no place like home, and cinematically speaking, The Wizard Of Oz will always feel like home to me.

James Clayton is off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz before he was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but really he’s most excited about the Bruce Campbell cameo. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read his previous column here.