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'The Wizard of Oz' in IMAX 3D: A classic enhanced, or an assault withstood?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 20, 2013 at 12:59PM

Does 'The Wizard of Oz's IMAX 3D reissue add new depth to a beloved favorite? Or is the true test of a classic how it withstands changes made to lure new audiences in?
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Last Sunday, I took my four-year-old daughter to see The Wizard of Oz. Or at least, I think I did. If you want a ticket for the movie we saw, you'll have to look up something called "The Wizard of Oz: An IMAX 3D Experience," which at my local multiplex will set you back $17 for an adult and $14.25 for a child. 

Although she's watched favorites like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service dozens of times at home, my daughter only just started watching movies in the theater -- an attempt at Yellow Submarine a couple of years back was aborted halfway through -- and since her first theatrical movie was the 3D Turbo (don't judge), she's asked every time since if she'll have to wear "those funny glasses" to watch. But while she preferred to watch the last half-hour of Turbo as a stereoscopic blur rather than keep her 3D glasses on, I heard no such complaints during The Wizard of Oz: An IMAX 3D Experience. In fact, she was uncommonly quiet throughout, sitting in my lap and occasionally squeezing my hand, finally emitting a high-pitched squeal when Glinda returns in the penultimate scene. (Who on Earth loves Billie Burke's bland goodie-two-shoes? Four-year-old girls, that's who.)

I don't know to what extent my daughter's four-year-old brain processed the much-touted digital remastering of The Wizard of Oz: An IMAX 3D Experience, let alone its newly added dimension, and I'm not especially interested in pressing her about it. If she experienced it differently than the clips we've watched at home, via the movie's 70th-anniversary Blu-ray reissue, she made no mention of it, and I prefer for now to let her make own distinctions, or lack thereof, between various modes of viewing. As far as my daughter's concerned, a four-minute YouTube clip watched on an iPhone is "a movie" as much as a 90-minute feature watched on 35mm. (She did, however, ask, "Daddy, can we go see those movies every weekend?" at which point I had a brief flash of the Grinch's swelling heart busting out of its tiny box.)

But like any parent, I wonder about the future, and the small part of me concerned with my daughter's cinematic education wonders especially about raising her in a world without film -- a word I've deliberately avoided using thus far. What are the chances that she'll ever experience The Wizard of Oz, or Singin' in the Rain, or Citizen Kane or any of hundreds of other essential films, as the product of light flickering through celluloid? And to what extent does it matter? It used to be that, barring something like the chance discovery of Fritz Lang's uncut Metropolis, movies made before 1960 were immune from the incessant versioning of contemporary film, the endless deluge of director's cuts and reconstructions and "versions you've never seen." But with the studio-dictated shift to digital projection in its final stages, everything's a version. (As The Dissolve pointed out, Hollywood's iconic Chinese Theater no longer has a film projector in its projection booth.)

This particular version of The Wizard of Oz is extraordinarily clear; in addition to adding 3D and souping up the sound for IMAX, Warner Bros. used the 2009 restoration of the film, which for the first time went back to the original three-strip Technicolor negatives, digitally aligning them with a precision unachievable in 1939. Of course, it's possible that at least some of the film's several directors built that imprecision into their calculations, and that the perfectly aligned Wizard of Oz therefore looks less, not more, like it was supposed to. Warner Bros.' technicians have commendably left the flaws made more visible by the restoration intact -- the hairlines on the Munchkin's bald caps, or the mismatched color of Bert Lahr's facial prosthetics -- rather than "improving" them, as Paramount did when they steamrolled the grain out of Sunset Blvd. While USA Today's Claudia Puig says that the new version makes it "easier now than ever to surrender disbelief," others, like the Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl, argues that the newly visible imperfections solicit a greater degree of complicity between the film and its audience.

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.

Personally, I find myself agreeing most with Newsday's Rafer Guzman, who writes, "There's really no improving The Wizard of Oz... Only some of these changes are welcome, but they prove that there's no destroying this enduringly magical movie, either." At its best, which is most of the time, the 3D is harmless, and though the trick doesn't really work, I appreciate the that converters lifted a trick from Henry Selick's Coraline, using varying depths of field to distinguish between real and imaginary worlds. Perhaps in the future, the test of a "classic" film won't be how it stands the test of time, but how it withstands the alterations made to lure new audiences in.


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