“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.
I’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.)
But, 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).
I 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.