Review: The Wizard of Oz – the beloved 1939 classic becomes a benchmark on Blu-ray

It’s hard to imagine a world without The Wizard of Oz; every inch of its production has permeated pop-culture throughout the past 70 years. Every artist, no matter the medium, owes a debt to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic in some regard.

And although purists will decry it as a saccharin adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s original novel, its essence is still intact – Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is still the quintessential American fairy tale.

Warner Bros., trusted with bringing the classic property to Blu-ray, has decided to commemorate the film’s 70th anniversary in style; packaging together a wealth of supplemental material and a breathtaking transfer into one complete set.

The end result is – easily – one of the best Blu-ray sets on the market today, and a new benchmark for high definition transfers of classic films.

So every other studio, take notes!

Storytelling: 4/5

Giving a detailed plot synopsis for one of the most watched film of all-time seems like a fool’s errand, so I’ll keep it brief.

When the orphaned Dorothy is whisked away from her rural, dreary life in Kansas to the colorful world of Oz, she accidentally lands on the Wicked Witch of the East. The fortunate collision is cause for celebration amongst the native Munchkins, and Dorothy inherits the witch’s ruby red slippers as a fabulous door prize.

And thus begins a colorful, musical journey across a Technicolor landscape to the Emerald City, home of the Wizard of Oz, and hopefully a way back home. En route, Dorthy befriends the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion – all of whom also require the renown wizard’s help.

Not without trouble, the quartet finds themselves in the cross hairs of the Wicked Witch of the West, who seeks Dorothy’s ruby red slippers for her own gain. And, naturally, the great and powerful Oz refuses to help Dorothy or her friends until they get rid of the wicked witch.

In the end, we all learn a valuable lesson – tap water is dangerous (it’s the fluoride).

Despite the film’s beleaguered history, one that saw actors and directors change multiple times throughout production, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become a hallmark of American cinema.

Some people are drawn to its music, others to its story, but whether it’s Judy Garland’s captivating performance as a plucky Kansas teenager, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s musical composition, Victor Fleming’s impeccable direction, or Harold Rosson’s colorful cinematography – there’s something here for everybody.

Even more miraculous is how well everything holds up. Fleming’s classic was made over an era ago, at the dawn of Technicolor, and despite the age, its production values are still exceptional.

All the performers, Garland especially, are not victims of nostalgia; this is a living, breathing fairy tale come to life made whole by an outstanding cast.

Its imagery permanently seared into the public consciousness, accompanied by a memorable soundtrack that has withstood over half a century, The Wizard of Oz stands tall as one of the greatest films of all-time.

Video: 5/5

A lot of effort has gone into remarkable restoration of The Wizard of Oz, and the 1080p, 4:3-framed transfer absolutely shines on Blu-ray.

Warner Bros. pulled off this feat by commissioning a new transfer at 8K resolution from the film’s three, separate negatives, and having a talented crew work tirelessly to clean up residual film degradation.

Color correction then took an additional three months, and was based on the original answer print kept at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The end result is spectacular – fully restored, The Wizard of Oz produces a pristine image not seen since its heyday, if ever.

While natural grain is apparent throughout (sure to please purists), what’s more appealing is the added level of texture brought to the hand built sets and incredible makeup effects. With the new restoration, audiences can actually make out separate spots of rust carefully painted on the Tin Man’s face or the intricate set design of Munchkinland. The Wizard of Oz has been transformed into a sight to behold.

That said, not everything has aged well.

The increased resolution makes the painted, flat backdrops look very pronounced in the background (but one could say it gives the film a fairy tale appearance). You can also now spot marks on set or details such as where the smoke machine is place for the Wicked Witch’s grand entrance. And the Cowardly Lion’s costume looks rather cheap in comparison to his peers, which stands in stark contrast with the improved detail.

But these are minor nitpicks, especially for a transfer as immaculate as this one. It is a restoration that breathes new life into Harold Rosson’s cinematography; even the film’s sepia tinted bookends look magnificent.

At this point, I’ve pretty much run clean out of superlatives to print, so let it be known – The Wizard of Oz is the benchmark from which all other classic film transfers will be judged.

Audio: 4/5

Sporting a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless track, The Wizard of Oz is music to the ears.

Literally.

Known for its musical score, and the accompanying soundtrack courtesy of Hubert Stothard, Judy Garland’s beautiful renditions of the film’s classic playlist reverberate harmoniously in surround sound.

Expertly using directional audio, the indelible sound design touts a distinct clarity not heard in previous reissues. This mix is not afraid to use the rear speakers where necessary either.

Don’t expect miracles for dialogue; while the vocal audio is crisp, it still retains the aged sound of audio recorded seventy years prior. It is very clean, however.

It’s not as awe inspiring as the film transfer, but it’s an incredible audio presentation nevertheless.

Package: 5/5

Some might see Warner Bros. packaging of The Wizard of Oz as a monument to excess, and others might see as an extravagant way to celebrate 70 years of history.

It’s both.

And while diehard fans will fork out for the Ultimate Collector’s Edition (complete with bundled collectibles, digital copy and display box), for the purposes of this review, the 3-disc Emerald Edition will suffice.

And – man – is the set loaded.

Totaling three BD-50 discs, the supplemental material boasts audio commentary by Oz historian John Fricke, Dolby 5.1 Sing-Along feature for BonusView decks, a multitude of featurrettes on production ad restoration, outtakes, deleted scenes, hundreds of photo stills, trailers and extensive archival suite of original audio recordings, radio shows and promotional material.

And that’s just on the first disc.

The second disc stores an intensive documentary of director Victor Fleming (who also went on to direct a little known film called Gone with the Wind), an hour long biopic on author L. Frank Baum, a feature on the surviving Munchkin stars and seven other adaptations of Baum’s work predating the 1939 classic (totaling to about four and a half hours worth of film).

As if that was not exhausting enough, the third disc is an imposing six-hour documentary entitled When the Lion Roars, detailing the rise and fall of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio in the style of Ken Burns.

It’s a masterful look at the studio and mandatory viewing for any aspiring filmmakers. The history of the once powerful juggernaut is just incredible, and some of the facts that come from director Frank Martin’s documentary will surprise you.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to see and hear, and even after you done watching the remarkably restored film a dozen times, there’s days worth of material to keep you preoccupied in addition.

If I could award six points, I would, but Warner Bros. will have to settle for the full five.

Bias:

The Wizard of Oz is so influential that nearly every, single director you can name off the top of your head cites it as a reference at one point.

I’m not exagerating – every, single one. It’s a real fact. I looked it up.

(I didn’t.)

Regardless, The Wizard of Oz is indeed a great film, highlighted by colorful performances and superb direction, that has entertained generations worth of children.

The film has become so interwoven into pop-culture that uttering of some of its more memorable lines have gone from classic to cliche to ironic back to cliche again.

That’s impressive.

Warner Bros. has created a Blu-ray set worthy of its history, and thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, into one complete set that is a showcase for the Blu-ray format. The transfer is an extraordinary feat of modern technology and the supplemental material – none of it throwaway – is the stuff home video enthusiasts’ dreams are made of.

Its MSRP, unless you plan on getting the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, does not set it far apart from most Blu-ray new releases, yet it blows every, single one of them out of the water.

So, really, there’s no excuse.

I feel confident in recommending that you do not walk, but run (or click, for the Internet savvy) to the store and pick up a copy. If The Wizard of Oz does not find its way into your Blu-ray collection shortly, I shall send a motley crew of rude Americans to ridicule you.

It’s that good.

Verdict: 5/5 – “TREASURE”

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