PictureThe Wizard Of Oz has been meticulously restored frame by frame by means of the new Ultra Resolution process that scans the original negative to give a new, cleaned-up digital print of the film that can then be combined with the three separate Technicolor sources to create a master. This process was also used to great effect on Errol Flynn's magnificent The Adventures Of Robin Hood. The results ensure that we are treated to the best looking image of the movie that is, thus far, possible to achieve.
Retaining its original full screen 1.33:1 aspect, Oz definitely looks tremendous, but I would shy away from using words like stunning or scintillating that some aficionados have been keen to heap upon it. The colours are definitely more vibrant and bold than we've seen them before - even more so than the previous restored edition - and really do stand out. Once we are in Oz, you can pick any scene you like to showcase the improvements made, from the yellow brick road, Munchkin-land or the Emerald City, but I actually think that the witch's green skin looks even more vivid than before, literally hurling itself from the screen. There is no hint of bleeding or smearing, and no over-saturation. The tone is rich and striking, yet still has that distinct patina of age that enables the image to retain a level of warmth, revealing that the engineers kept the picture's integrity without overdoing it. Look at the flames in the Wizard's chamber, or the witch's castle, or the eyes on the funny-looking birds in the Haunted Forest. But, of course, the most vivid image is of the ruby slippers that truly ignite the screen. Top stuff.
The level of detail has been improved upon, as well. Trouncing the previous edition again, it appears that a lot more time has been spent removing dust and dirt and smoothing over damage and shaky scene-changes to leave a much clearer, sharper image. Check out the glistening reflections on the strange leaves and petals in Munchkinland, or the radiant gleam on Glinda's dazzling frock. The costumes, overall, have a genuinely more delightful appearance, with much more elements in their composition revealed for scrutiny, particularly the Tin Man's rivets and Lion's whiskers, fur and ever-so-lively tail. However, on the downside of this new clarity, the level of grain seems slightly magnified. The sepia Kansas segments are naturally grubbier than the Technicolor majority of the film, but now the grain seems much more apparent, especially on a 44 inch screen, as though the dustbowl really is blowing grit all about. Detail is still very well depicted despite this, however. The foregrounds appear to benefit much more from this extensive cleanup than the backgrounds though, which still sometimes look a little hazy.
Black levels are very well rendered, adding a spooky depth to the woods and a fantastic sense of atmosphere and shadow to the witch's castle. The scene of the heroic trio climbing up the polystyrene mountain on their rescue mission looks astonishingly good - look at the glimmer on the Tin Man and the awesomely ominous deep blue skies behind them. And the chase around the battlements and within the big stone halls has a reassuring use of deep, impenetrable blacks to keep the image well-balanced against the green skin and bright colours of the pursuing army of Winkies.
So, for a film from 1939, The Wizard Of Oz does, indeed, look tremendous. It doesn't pass for having been filmed yesterday, as some people have claimed, but it is a clear improvement over the last edition - which was no slouch in the visual department, either.
SoundThis release covers all bases in the audio department. We get the original Dolby Digital mono track for the purists, which does sound remarkably nice and bright and is thoroughly pleasing, the buffed-up 5.1 remix that adorned the previous incarnation and a music and fx track that sounds quite tasty too. The new mix was created by integrating the original vocal track, two full orchestral tracks and a separate track for sound effects, but without adding anything that wasn't already there to begin with. Sadly though, this hyped-up surround remix really makes virtually no attempt to improve upon the original very much at all, since the sub and the rears rarely come into play, relying instead on providing subtle ambience and some slight musical enhancement. There are one or two instances of steerage across the front - the witch's voice emanating from the front right, for example - but, for the most part, the 5.1 track just sounds louder and not even necessarily clearer.
Some of the early Munchkin songs sound a little mashed but this is down to the age of the source material and not the digital transfer. Occasionally, you can hear some slight hiss but this is nothing to worry about, given the age of the soundtrack. Though, taken as a whole, I think that the dialogue, the singing, the music and the fx come across just fine. The 5.1 may widen things up very slightly but the original mono track retains a fuller sounding natural quality that the enhanced track lacks. So, in this case, I believe the purists win the day.
ExtrasWell, folks, we're well and truly over the rainbow with this staggering abundance of bonuses. Quite frankly, the amount of goodies offered up within this exemplary package takes the breath away. Starting with Disc 1, we get the marvellous Commentary Track which, introduced and steered by director Syndey Pollack, features contributions from Oz historian John Fricke and numerous interviews from the archives with such luminaries as stars Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, producer Mervyn LeRoy, makeup artist William Tuttle and orchestral arranger Ken Darby. Fricke is full of technical and academic detail and certainly covers a lot of ground with tireless affection, although he does tend to keep clear of some of the more infamous anecdotes surrounding the Munchkins. We even get some comments from poor Buddy Ebsen, some of the cast's descendants and an uncredited writer. A good track that manages to avoid being too sickly reminiscent, or dry.
Next up on Disc 1 we have Angela Lansbury (a big time Oz fan and owner of the perfect narrator's voice for a perennial family favourite) reading us The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz Storybook (10.28 mins) as the camera whisks us around a selection of the original colour plates used to illustrate the book. There is also some quirky Captain Pugwash-style animation and a few hints of the greater dangers to be found in the land of Oz - like Hammerheads and Fighting Trees.
Then we get a small featurette that takes us through the restoration process that this release has undergone. Called Prettier Than Ever (11.27 mins) this brief explanation of the wonderful Ultra Resolution Process introduces us to prime restorers Rob Hummell and Ned Price and shows us what goes into sprucing up old negatives and original prints.
Disc 1 is rounded off with a Supporting Cast Profile Gallery entitled We Haven't Met Properly (21.20 mins) in which we are treated to profiles and filmographies for Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick and even the little Cairn Terrier, Terry, who played Toto. Angela Lansbury lends her voice to narrating their exploits over clips and stills.
Disc 2 is where the action really begins though. First up is the terrific, and fairly in-depth, The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz: The Making Of A Movie Classic (50.52 mins). Hosted by the ubiquitous, but soothing tones of Angela Lansbury, this documentary charts the complete story behind the production of Fleming's film. From gaining the rights to Baum's stories and the often-controversial casting (thank God Shirley Temple didn't get the part of Dorothy) to the troubled filming and its final release and even plenty of background on the studio itself, this examination utilises plenty of archive visual and audio interviews with participants from in front of, and behind, the camera, and their descendants. This feature is a return from the earlier Oz release but it is still a welcome addition to this set. Not as sweetly patronising as it could have been, this has some nice sound bites from the likes of Jack (“Like hell it was fun!”)Haley and Margaret Hamilton - listen out for her recollection on getting the part of the witch - and makes mention of Buddy Ebsen's near-fatal encounter with aluminium dust and gives us an excerpt of Scarecrow's deleted dance routine. Don't despair, folks - this release will allow to see the entire thing later on. Produced by Jack Haley Jnr and David Niven Jnr, this documentary (in 25 chapters) has a terrific, well-produced and slick feel. But, as comprehensive as it is, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Memories Of Oz (27.36 mins) is a Turner Classic Movies special made in 2001 that takes the unusual approach of throwing in the recollections of the Munchkin players (who retain the spirit of things by staying in-costume) and director (and huge fan) John Waters to the usual mix of archive footage and vintage interviews. There are even a few moments telling of the careers of various props and costumes since their time in Oz. It's a nice and slightly irreverent piece of whimsy.
Next up is The Art Of Imagination: A Tribute To Oz (29.45 mins) which is much more fun as we get the great Peter Jackson popping up to contribute. Check out how thin he looks now - Kong's obviously knocked the stuffing out of him! This is a well put together piece that delivers a linear examination of the innovations created in the making of the film. Conducted by Tom Woodruffe Jnr, Allen Davieu, costume designer Colleen Atwood, visual effects boffin John Dykstra and score composers Howard (The Lord Of The Rings) Shore, Randy (Monsters' Inc) Newman and Don (The Matrix) Davis, this provides copious, but relevant, reminiscence and admiration for the film and its continued influence. Their collective respect and viewpoints make for a refreshing and modern take on the classic, paying, in order, particular attention to the clever use of music and dialogue interplay, the look of the sets and the scenery and how they were created and the visual FX that were groundbreaking in its day. Rick Baker appears for a moment to praise the makeup - unsurprisingly he seems most fond of the Lion. Dykstra discusses the twister and just what Sean (Sam Gamgee) Astin is doing in here is anybody's guess but, overall, this is a great feature from people who know their trade and pay the respect that The Wizard Of Oz deserves in their own terms.
Because Of The Wonderful Things It Does: The Legacy Of Oz (25.05 mins) is a smart little documentary that charts the success of the film once it had received its first TV showing in 1956, through its network run when ratings went through the roof and on to its impact throughout the ensuing eras. John Fricke and other commentators delve a little deeper into the psyche of the pop-culture phenomenon from its baby-boomer fan-base to its pro-feminist stance, from its rekindling in blockbusters like Star Wars and E.T. to the obsession of some of the fans and their amazing collections. As an avid collector of movie merchandise, myself, I understand completely where these people are coming from. (I virtually live on a film set created from props from Gladiator.) We even meet Eric Shanower, a cartoonist who has begun to write his own Oz stories just to keep the fantasyland alive. Top stuff.
Composer Harold Arlen's Home Movies (4.39 mins) is literally just a selection of 16mm footage that he shot on set-visits during the principal cast portrait sessions. Set to cues from the score, this is quite nice to see, though hardly revealing.
Outtakes and Deleted Scenes features the five sequences carried over from the earlier release and with a Play All option runs for 14.37 mins. We get the complete “If I Only Had A Brain” Scarecrow Busby Berkely dance sequence, which is, by far the pick of the crop, Buddy Ebsen's take on Tin Man's “If I Only Had A Heart” which plays over a selection of stills from his makeup tests, “Hail!Hail! The Witch Is Dead”, a reprise of “Over The Rainbow” and a final “Jitterbug” sequence that is complemented by stills and Harold Arlen's home movies. Not too shabby, then, but Scarecrow's big scene is the standout.
It's A Twister! It's A Twister! is an 8.16 mins look at the raw footage shot for the still-awesome storm sequence. Featuring the many different effects shots, this looks and sounds terrific in an Outer Limits sort of way. Strangely enough, my little lad loved watching this slightly mesmerising section.
Off To See The Wizard (3.56 mins) is a selection of the tiny little cartoons that Chuck Jones animated for ABC's 1967 prime-time family slot. These feature the main characters from the movie in bite-size slapstick. These featured on the prior release too.
From The Vault has three vintage featurettes with a Play All option. Running for an overall 14.10 mins, we are treated to Another Romance Of Celluloid: Electrical Power, which is just ten minutes of MGM revealing its powerful new toy as we are taken behind the scenes on their latest film - you guessed it, The Wizard Of Oz. Some Frank Capra edited footage from the Cavalcade Of Academy Awards 1940 in which Oz picked up its awards. And finally we get a real bizarro in Texas Contest Winners, in which a studio promo is lent a helping hand by a busload of, yup, Texan contest winners on a tour of the MGM lot. I hope you're beginning to feel just how comprehensive all this is getting.
Then we get the Audio Vault, which features something like four and half hours of audio-only segments. This is what separates the Oz-men from the Oz-boys, folks. Under the heading of Jukebox we get many songs being sung, rehearsed and tinkered about with, from Over The Rainbow to Off To See The Wizard. There are false-starts, retakes and orchestral prompts, the set featuring lots of chatter and laughter - but, be warned, you will get mightily cheesed-off listening to the same tracks sung over and over and over again. We also get a large section that is devoted to the underscoring of six scenes. This is a fabulous, and unusual, addition - if you've got the staying power.
There are also three radio broadcasts - Leo Is On The Air Radio Promo (12.13 mins), Good News Of 1939 (60.52 mins) which features the main cast, and 1950 Christmas Day Lux Radio Broadcast (60.46 mins) featuring Judy Garland. This stuff is a fantastic treat for vintage radio buffs!
Stills Gallery covers literally every facet of the production with portraits, effects, sketches, storyboards and costume tests, the set enhanced yet further with stills from the film's publicity, various city premiers and even the Academy Awards ceremony and the subsequent revival of Oz through re-releases. Quality.
And rounding off the second jam-packed disc we have a set of six Theatrical Trailers covering the original 1939 release on up to 1998.
Disc 3 takes us back to the roots of Oz, with a documentary on its creator, L. Frank Baum, entitled The Man Behind The Curtain, a clever take on the manipulations of the Wizard, himself. Running for 27.40 mins, this is a pretty decent stab at revealing the life and times of the writer as told by historians, descendants and others-in-the-know. With a wealth of sepia photographs as a backdrop, as well as book jackets and illustrations, we learn of his years of toil and failure as a businessman, actor, playwright, newspaper publisher and even as a chicken breeder before stumbling back on the fantasy land of his dreams (and the stories he used to tell his children) and finding success by putting them down on paper. It's great to hear the full story of how he came up with the name of Oz when put on the spot by an enthralled gaggle of kids. Again, this is a fabulous feature, gaining strength from sheer depth of detail, a terrific respect for the subject and an entertaining delivery of fact, trivia and anecdote. The more I delve into this box set, the more enamoured I become at the whole Oz phenomenon. The lavish attention bestowed upon the film, the books and their creator is enough to entrance even the most tenuous of fans.
And then, in a set that simply seems to know no bounds, we are treated to five earlier attempts to visualise the magical realm of Oz. Now these, I have to inform you, are definitely an acquired taste. They are vintage, they are damaged and they bear all the whimsy of their time. But, to a completist they are like gold-dust, and nigh on essential as they provide valuable historical context to the imaginative process that eventually brought an accurate, and definitive, version of the story to the screen.
First up is The Wizard Of Oz (1910) (13.00 mins) which looks in surprisingly good nick for its age. I'm not too sure about the newly added piano score, but this very theatrical take makes good use of its sets - hey, even the Fleming version had painted backdrops - and has a distinct curio value.
The Magic Cloak Of Oz (1914) (38.26 mins) offers some vintage FX, like a man in the moon and some ethereal fairies dancing about, but the whole thing has a quirky Eastern European feel that I found slightly unnerving, and the organ music score is a little too intrusive. In addition, its Oz link is rather tenuous and, had it been made a few decades later, the character of King Bud would have been clear example of product placement.
The third offering is also from 1914 and is called His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (59.04 mins). This one has a hippy-trippy feel to it - or perhaps that's just me (at this stage in the game I feel like I've been relocated to Oz). Check out the witches taking flight on their broomsticks! There's also some very strange print damage that occurs around the thirteen minute mark, but overall, this is still very watchable.
Then we get The Wizard Of Oz (1925), the longest of the set at 71.48 mins. This one is notable for Oliver Hardy, or Oliver N. Hardy as he is billed here, playing a prominent role - he becomes the Tin Man. Possessing a newly composed score by Robert Israel, this sepia-tinted film is quite well detailed with a reasonably clear picture. A huge portion of the story is set entirely on the Kansas farmstead and the first half of the film features far too much slapstick - playing more like a traditional vintage comedy, very reminiscent of Laurel And Hardy, in fact. It's all very spirited and theatrical and filmed with a kick-up-the-pants vigour. Although quite a clever and appealing version, it is as zany as they come and bears hardly resemblance to the Oz story we know.
The last incarnation presented is The Wizard Of Oz cartoon (1933) animated by Ted Eshbaugh. Running for eight minutes, this is notable as being the first version to depict Kansas in black and white and Oz in full Technicolor. It's drawn with a Betty Boop/Felix The Cat style but retains a nostalgic charm.
Finally, as if all the above wasn't enough, we get a wonderful selection of reproductions from 1939 promotional material celebrating the film's premier. We get a copy of an original MGM Studio Invitation and a commemorative Theatre Ticket for its showing at the world-famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre, August 15, 1939, and a copy of the original Premier Program to complete our big night out. A ten-page copy of the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Studio News is a true delight, as well. Celebrating the film's premier, this also contains some great stories about other movies and casting coups of the time and a brilliant 2-page spread on how theatres can exploit the film (we'd call it promote - but the yanks don't mince their words, do they?) by hiring midgets to work as Munchkin barkers, organising Toto-look-alike contests and having Wizards reading customers' fortunes in the lobby. Truly, this is great stuff. And then there's the rare secondary education Scholastic Guide from Photoplay Studies, containing contemporary photos, interviews and heaps of background information within its sixteen pages. More great, intriguing nostalgia. Plus, we get a nice glossy card depicting the various posters for the film, from 1-sheets to a 24-sheet and even a Jumbo Window Card. But, a beautiful bonus is the inclusion of ten fabulous full-colour Kodachrome Publicity Art portraits and on-set photographs. These are lush and vivid and pin-sharp.
VerdictIn the history of fantastic cinema, The Wizard Of Oz stands tall and proud, an enchanting achievement that never fades, nor fails to cast its spell upon each new generation. However you view it - through the wide-eyes of a child or the wary eyes of a grownup (or, perhaps, even one of each) - the movie plays it straight from the heart with simple joy at its core. Dorothy's adventure is a poignant reminder, not just of the halcyon days of studio Technicolor, but of the hopes and fears of our own teenage ... and the reality we all find after the dream has faded.
This new 3-Disc Collector's Edition has literally everything you could possibly wish for, in fact this package represents the meaning of the word definitive in almost every way. With its astounding wealth of extras - hats off especially for the reproductions of cinema ticket, invitation and souvenir booklets - it can sit justifiably alongside Jackson's Rings trilogy, the Aliens Quadrilogy and the Gladiator 2 and 3-disc editions combined, with heart, intelligence and a courageous helping of genuinely respectful nostalgia. The new print is a revelation and the inclusion of the original mono track puts the icing on a very rich cake indeed. Basically, I can't recommend this edition enough.
Because, because, because, because, because... because of the wonderful things it does!
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