Screening Report: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) in IMAX 3-D

dorothyIt was a crisp Saturday night on the eve of autumn, and I was waiting for THE WIZARD OF OZ.

“I’m shocked you want to see this,” my sister said.

“Why?” I asked. “You know how much I like it.”

“Exactly,” she said. “But you’re a…um…you’re a…”

“Be careful what you call me,” I interrupted. “Remember who just paid $105 for the tickets.”

I should mention here that we were at a suburban, Long Island multiplex, not an elegant New York City movie palace (not that such places exist anymore, but still). And unlike my usual solo excursions to see classics on the big screen, on this occasion there were six of us: my nieces Kate, Laura, and Emily (ages 6, 11, and 14, respectively) and my girlfriend Maggie, my sister Missy, and me (ages unavailable at press time).

“It’s not because of the price,” Missy continued. “It’s because it’s in 3-D. And IMAX. And it’s at a multiplex. It’s not authentic. You hate colorization and all that stuff. Because you’re a….you’re a….”

“Purist,” I interrupted. “Let’s go with purist.”

“Yes,” she said. “Purist. That’s a nice way of saying it!”

My sister knows me well, and she’s been watching me watch old movies since I was 10-years-old. And she’s right, I am a proud purist. And, as a purist, I do hate things like colorization, or DVDs of black & white movies with color pictures on the box meant to trick shoppers. I hate it when films shot in the square, 1.37 Academy aspect ratio are stretched into rectangles by modern TV monitors so they don’t look “old.” Basically, I can’t stand anything that corrects the perceived imperfections of classic films. Because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with classic films.

So yes, despite the positive reports from critics I admire, I had some reservations before seeing THE WIZARD OF OZ in IMAX 3-D. But I summoned up my courage, and off I went, glasses in hand.

The-Wizard-of-Oz-1939-Movie-PosterI’m happy to say that OZ in 3-D is the same movie I’ve loved for practically my whole life, only more so. The original source material has been refined to reveal nuances I had never noticed in dozens of viewings on broadcast TV (CBS from 1976 through 1998), cable (TBS, TNT and TCM), VHS, DVD and even in 35mm screenings (including on my third date with Maggie, who obviously had no idea what she was getting herself into.) The result felt, in many ways, like seeing the film for the first time.

After a 4K scan of the negative, 3-D conversion, and additional image processing by IMAX, all done under the supervision of Warner Bros. Chief Preservation Officer Ned Price, I saw/heard things in OZ that I never had before: Judy Garland’s freckles; Toto’s squeals when Miss Gulch stuffs him in her basket; the sounds of the animals on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm; the texture of the Scarecrow’s burlap face; the Tin Man’s round, bald head under his funnel hat; the weeds on the Yellow Brick Road; Dorothy’s flailing legs as the flying monkeys carry her off; and the weapons the heroes brandish as they head off to dispatch the Witch.

“Oh my God, the Scarecrow has a gun?” my sister whispered. “Did they add that?”

“Shhh!” I admonished her (because I’m a purist, and we don’t talk in movie theaters.)

wiz-oz-2But, no, as far as I can tell, nothing has been added to the film that wasn’t already there — except the perception of three dimensions. To achieve that effect, technicians went into the high-resolution scans of the original negatives and digitally split the image into component pieces. In some cases, those pieces were separated to create the illusion of depth. This is particularly noticeable in establishing shots with prominent foreground and background scenic elements: Munchkin Land, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the Poppy Field, the Witch’s castle, the Road leading to Emerald City, the Wizard’s front door, and the corridor leading to the throne room. In some cases, flat, painted backdrops are made to look more realistic than they did previously, which is the opposite of what I expected. (I feared the higher resolution 3-D image would highlight the limitations of the set, not improve it. This was a nice surprise.)

Perhaps most importantly, nowhere does the use of 3-D feel gimmicky or self-conscious. After an initial acclimation period, the only time I noticed it was when the Wicked Witch was featured in close-up. They seem to have saved the heavy use of the effect for her, perhaps to emphasize her otherworldliness (or Margaret Hamilton’s smokin’ hot good looks).

WitchI acknowledge that any conversation about “splitting” the film’s original source images will send some purists (not this one, obviously) into paroxysms of pique. But here’s how I look at it: to a certain extent, THE WIZARD OF OZ was born in pieces, because of the nature of the three-strip Technicolor process in which it was filmed. The cameras on the MGM soundstages generated three unique negatives which were then colored with dye and united to form the gloriously bright and rich images everyone knows and loves. Without that process of separation and reunification, THE WIZARD OF OZ would not look like the film we’ve all known and loved for nearly 75 years.

OZ was shot in Technicolor to enhance the viewing experience, and because it was a great promotional hook to get people in the seats. And that’s exactly what Warner Bros. has done by converting the movie to 3-D and presenting it exclusively on larger IMAX screens. And their gamble paid off. According to Box Office Mojo, THE WIZARD OF OZ grossed more than $3 million in just 318 theaters, enough to earn a spot in the top ten for the weekend of September 20-22. And OZ had a per-theater average of $9,730, which was better than any other movie in America. The second closest competitor was PRISONERS starring Hugh Jackman, with a $6,386 per-screen average. OZ more than doubled the per-venue average of every other national release.

That’s not just a win, that’s a rout. If you love classic film, it has to make you happy to see a movie from 1939 win at the box office in 2013.

After the screening, all three of my nieces agreed that THE WIZARD OF OZ  in 3-D was “awesome.”  And, as we walked out of the theater, I overheard 14-year-old Emily humming “Over the Rainbow” — this from a kid who won’t watch the original KARATE KID because it’s “too old.” But it’s all about perception, and Warner Bros. did a great job of putting just enough of a modern spin on this classic to attract a new generation, while still remaining appropriately reverent to the original work. As a purist, I appreciate that.

And as an uncle, I appreciate the opportunity to see a film I love with three kids I love, and to create a whole new set of happy memories.


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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31 Responses to Screening Report: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) in IMAX 3-D

  1. Great report Will – beautifully expressed.

  2. I want to see the 3D version of the Wizard of Oz and then I want to see the Great and Powerful Oz…oh my!

  3. Lindsey says:

    I’m glad to hear that your nieces all enjoyed it so much — our theater was packed with kids and I was excited to see all of them loving it, too! The little boy sitting next to me repeatedly asked his mother throughout the film if he could become a tin man, haha.

    It’s great that Warner decided to do this release because it’s making a classic accessible to an entirely new generation, not only by putting it into theaters but by enhancing it with technology the kids are well familiar with. (Not to mention, the 3D conversion was beautifully done.) Now, in a perfect world, every kid would walk out of the theater with a new-found curiosity about classics in general, leading to a future as an Old Movie Weirdo, which would make the world full of Old Movie Weirdos… but that’s just a far-fetched dream of mine. 😛

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Lindsey. I love hearing stuff like that.

      And actually, your dream is not so far fetched. Since classic films are not readily available in mainstream broadcast platforms anymore, the only way for kids to really discover them is in a rare situation like this.

      Let’s say Warner Bros. sells a million tickets to OZ over the course of a one-week run, and half of the audience members are kids. And, of those 500,000 young people, let’s say ten percent are inspired to seek out old movies. That’s 50,000 new fans checking out TCM, or buying DVDs and Blu-rays, or looking for stuff on You Tube.

      And that’s a big part of why I feel strongly that classic film fans need to support this release, even if they have reservations about retrofitting a beloved classic. We always need to supplement our ranks with new blood. The kid who goes to see THE WIZARD OF OZ because it’s in 3-D today, may become the classic film purist of tomorrow. And a few of them may end up as Old Movie Weirdos, trolling the revival houses of New York City with me twenty years from now.

      • Michelle Facey says:

        Great write-up, thanks Will, I had no idea this was even being done – don’t know when it’ll hit the U.K.. I’ve never been to an IMAX & I’m not a big fan of 3-D anyways (just the thought of going to see Avatar for example, makes me feel queasy…), but I may well give it a try when it gets across the Pond on your recommendation!

        Wizard Of Oz is one of my all-time favourite films & yet I only got to see it on the big screen for the first time earlier this year (in a Sunday afternoon Judy G. double bill paired with Meet Me In St Louis). Although, on the Really Old Movie side of things, I also got to see this year the first film depiction of The Wizard of Oz from 1910, starring Bebe Daniels at the NFT, which was basically just a film of the stage show of the time, but v.interesting nonetheless! That was on a double bill with The Patchwork Girl Of Oz (played by Pierre Coudrec, who was pretty flipping convincing as Scraps & a bit scary at that!), from 1914, which was incidentally the film that brought about Harold Lloyd & Hal Roach’s meeting.

        The point of my writing though is to say that at the showing of the 1939 Wizard Of Oz, my friend & her friend both brought a daughter apiece with them & they loved the film! And on a similar note (pardon the pun) to you over hearing your niece humming ‘Over The Rainbow’ on leaving the theatre, I had the pleasure of hearing a little girl singing the theme song from Singin’ In The Rain in the street after a showing of the film at the beautifully restored 1938 Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted, & even more magically, while she was singing, she was jumping up on to benches on the rain glistened street & running along them & leaping off at the same time…. Both that & the fact that the young teenage boy who was sat at the table in the cinema with his mum & myself (to explain, the downstairs of the cinema has little nightclub tables with plush red swivel armchairs), & who never fidgeted or talked once, much to my surprise, honestly gave me hope in my heart too for the forging of New Old Movie Weirdos…..

      • willmckinley says:

        Thank you, Michelle. I love to hear stories like that.

        I always say that, given the opportunity to see classic film at a young age, kids will learn to love it just like we did. But, while there are more opportunities to see old movies today than there were in the ’70s and ’80s when I was growing up, you have to seek them out. You have to find TCM on your dial, or buy a DVD or Blu-ray, or rent one of the thousand that are available from Netflix, or know which to stream. Unlike when I was little and turned on my local station on a weekend afternoon and saw an Abbott and Costello film, or “Blondie,” or a black & white horror film. It’s about access, and allowing kids to discover that “old” and “black and white” is neither better nor worse, just different. (ALthough I think it’s better, but what do you expect from an Old Movie Weirdo)?

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Great thoughts about this, Will. Wonderfully expressed. I was very surprised how much I enjoyed my experience with this classic in 3D.

  5. Aurora says:

    Fantastic! I agree with all you noted. I went to see it with three college freshmen and a life-long friend. We all enjoyed it immensely and the conversation on the way home was about how much we saw that we’d never seen before. I was afraid they’d added images – like some of the creatures I saw for the first time while Dorothy & her friends are walking through the jungle. I was also enchanted, if you will, by the imperfections noticeable in the make-up. The Witches’ chin in particular was a standout. As a fellow purist, those things add considerable charm! 🙂


    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Aurora. That’s great to hear. They could very easily have digitally “repaired” those visible imperfections in the makeup, or fixed the scene where the Tin Man falls down and you see Jack Haley’s white undershirt under his tin suit, but they didn’t. I think that says a lot about the approach Warner Bros took in this restoration/conversion/transformation of this film. I have a lot of respect for them.

  6. Donna Valentine-Jones says:

    OMG!! After you commented about the heroes brandishing weapons, I noticed your profile pic has you pointing a gun @ us!!?? I know it wasn’t there before??

  7. Elise says:

    I liked it too! Though, I wondered why they got rid of the string that pulls the lion’s tail, that has always been visible? I was also a bit distracted by my surrounds 😉

    • willmckinley says:

      Elise, I didn’t notice that. But I guess it doesn’t bother me if they were able to repair something Victor Fleming had no intention of being visible in the final film, like strings. I don’t feel like that’s second guessing the director, like digitally “fixing” the character make-up would be. This feels more akin to removing a scratch from the negative, or some other imperfection. Although I can totally see how someone would be bothered by their removal.

      As for the setting in which you saw it, I can’t imagine a better place than Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I liked the pictures you posted. I’d also love to hear about how the screen looked and the “enhanced” IMAX audio sounded.

  8. Loved this! And I can’t wait to see Oz in 3-D! Gosh, I haven’t been this excited over a movie in ages! Like you, I had my doubts about it too — I worried that this whole re-release thing in 3-D was a gimmick. I’m so glad to hear that so many people (yourself included) are enjoying this film all over again, 75 years later. This just goes to show everyone that classic movies DON’T ‘suck.’ They’re better than ever *nods*

    Oh, and dude, that snide remark about your age being unavailable at press time made me snort with laughter 😀 You silly man.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Vanessa. It looks like the movie is being extended another week in some cities, so hopefully you’ll get a chance to see it. And I’m glad you appreciated my little joke.

  9. Rich says:

    They should’ve added ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ to the soundtrack.

  10. Great write-up, now I gotta find it here

  11. I saw it at the AMC on 42nd St. in Manhattan. I attended a pre-noon showing so that I’d only pay $14 (I knew that the screen it would be shown on wouldn’t be real IMAX, and I turned out to be right). The 3D was excellent, and I had a similar reaction when I noticed the gun in Scarecrow’s hand for the first time ever. It was a great experience, but I wish it had screened on a real IMAX screen (I would’ve seen it at the AMC on Broadway & 68th if they were actually showing it there).

  12. willmckinley says:

    Louis, if this was playing at Lincoln Square my sister and my nieces would have come into the city. There’s no better place to see a movie in NYC, in my opinion, than the AMC Loews IMAX auditorium. I’m disappointed they didn’t run it.

    Also, I never really understood the whole real/fake IMAX issue, and I’m still a bit unclear about it. But it seems that Warner Bros chose not to strike 70 mm film prints for use in the “true IMAX” houses and DCP doesn’t hold up well enough on the giant IMAX screens. Honestly, the screen we saw it on was not much larger than a standard screen.

  13. I saw it at the “Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX” in Portland and was, unfortunately, underwhelmed. The picture was “soft” for lack of a better word: not exactly out of focus, but not a sharp, crisp picture, either. If it’s still playing I may go see it again when i get back to Charlotte just to compare. So, BOO, HISS! RLC10&I!

    On the plus side, like many others I also noticed a lot of details I’d overlooked before. The one that stood out for me was, when our intrepid heroes first enter the woods they’re all holding weapons. The Lion’s was a spray-device labeled “WITCH REMOVER.” I’d never noticed that before. 🙂

    • willmckinley says:

      Kristen, that’s too bad. It sounds like the theater screwed up. Because the print I saw was super sharp. If you want to try it again, it’s being held over in daily matinees in some venues starting on Friday. I’m going to see it again on Sunday. I’ll look for the Witch Remover. I missed that because I was so fixated on Scarecrow’s gun.

  14. KC says:

    I still don’t love that they did the 3D conversion, though it doesn’t upset me either. You make a good argument for it. I love your white sunglasses without reservation! Great write-up.

  15. You’ve convinced me. I must take my son (when he was small he called rainbows “Auntie Em”) to see this release.

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  17. Johnny Guitar says:

    I’d love to see Wizard in 3D, as an old guy I used to watch it every year in the ’60’s at Thanksgiving on the 3 networks. Yes, I have the VHS and the DVD, but seeing it in 3D would be great. Only problem is how? Is it for sale on DVD in 3D? And even if so I’d have to buy a special 3D set, big bucks, I’m sure. So for now I’ll just have to do like I did when I used to watch Bogart movies, use my imagination, back then though I always would imagine just how Bogie would look in beautiful color. To my ever lasting delight, along came the wonderful world of colorization! With it color versions of Dark Passage, YES, and Laurel and Hardy shorts, and so so much more.

    Yes, I am a big fan of colorization and if it were my world, all b/w movies and TV shows would be available in colorized form (in addition to the standard b/w so you purists don’t go ape___). I love Casablanca in color and if you want a supreme example of how truly perfect colorization has become over the last 30 years, just look at the colorized sets of Seasons 1 & 2 of Bewitched. My one wish is that color haters would stop judging colorization based on 30 year old primitive attempts at the art, for example “Way Out West” or the original color version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (by the way, it’s been re-colorized as of 2 or 3 years ago and it looks beautiful now). Unfortunately the color haters never seem to update their viewing judgment choices and still base their extreme negativeness based on the original colorized movies from the 1980’s. Believe me, like Virginia Slims, they’ve “come along way, Baby.” The new colorized movies are perfect looking, they now look like they were filmed that way.

    But I do agree with you on one point, something I’ve said this before, I also “hate” it when DVD sellers put a beautifully colorized picture on the cover of a b/w DVD movie in order to fool people into thinking they’re getting a color movie. What they should do, of course, is colorize the movie, then a color cover picture would be fine and dandy. Otherwise put a dull b/w picture on the cover, because that’s what they’ll be getting a bland, dated looking, dull boring b/w picture. Hence the reason for my loving colorization, it makes old movies/TV shows look up to date and relevant to the present and ever so much more pleasing to the eye. Not an ancient relic from the past dug up and presented. Colorization makes a dull boring picture interesting. Afterall this is a colorful world, why shouldn’t the movies be too.

    I realize most people here will disagree, but I’m used to the haters. All I ask that if you like b/w, fine watch till your eyes go b/w too, just leave us color lovers alone to our sweet guilty pleasures. Stop trying to stop colorizing. We don’t need to hear another lecture on what cretins and boars we are simply because we choose to see the world in a more colorful way. I’ve heard ALL the arguments and I will never be convinced. Why? I LOVE COLORIZATION! OK, clear? Now spare me the tirades, I guarantee, not only will I not bother to read them, but I will never change my mind. I LOVE COLORIZATION. Now, onto my color version of “Magnificent Ambersons”! It’s really a Wonderful Life in beautiful living color.

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