The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz is one of two movies that hold a somewhat unique place in Christmas media. It is not, by any real quantifiable measure, a Christmas movie, but for somewhat complicated reasons it is heavily associated with the holidays. We've held off on reviewing it here for a long time, but finally decided there should be some sort of a review on this site, given how significant this is to both holiday tradition and to film history in general.

Before going on, I feel should probably remind everyone that the writer of the book this is based on, L. Frank Baum, was quite literally a proponent of genocide. He was a racist, an awful human being, and any discussion of his legacy should include that note.

Fortunately, the 1939 movie isn't limited to Baum's legacy. In a sense, the story of the movie is secondary to the craftmanship that went into making an imaginary world real. The source of that world is fairly trivial: they could have selected any fairytale or kid's book to adapt and - provided they put this kind of attention, talent, and resources behind it - I think they'd have gotten a similar result. It's unfortunate they chose a book written by someone horrible, as the success of the movie cemented Baum's legacy. 

Moving on.

I grew up watching this regularly, so I'm very familiar with the story, songs, and pace. However, it's been decades since I actually sat down and watched the movie from beginning to end. When I saw this as a kid, it always seemed outdated and simplistic. Oz looked like a set, the costumes were clearly costumes as opposed to special effects, and I associated singing with antiquated children's movies.

It feels like an understatement to say everything feels very different watching this as an adult. The sets are still clearly sets, but... my God... the scale here is incredible. Trying to wrap my head around the sheer size of the soundstages in question was exhausting. The amount of work that must have gone into creating these locations is incredible.

Likewise, the effects - many of which were captured in camera - are really astonishing to behold. The tornado tearing through Kansas at the beginning is just an amazing visual, and it's a practical effect. I never appreciated these as a child - I was used to similar techniques used in subsequent decades by movies targeting a more realistic look. I didn't yet understand how many of those same techniques were trying to replicate those in Oz, nor was I experienced enough to see the ones in Oz do a better job achieving their desired look.

I also never realized just how massively this film impacted popular culture and genre film. While there's no shortage of sources of inspiration for the Star Wars movies, I found myself spotting numerous specific designs and moments that would be used decades later. Munchkinland was clearly being referenced in the designs of the Ewok village, the door to Jabba's palace mirrors that of the door to the Emerald City, and the witch's guards even resemble Stormtroopers. All that's on top of parallels between character designs (Chewbacca and Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and C3-P0, and so on). Hell, even Dorothy's upbringing in Kansas seems like it may have influenced Luke growing up on a farm.

That's only one example: you can find elements of Oz in countless movies. More significantly, I'd argue this film's pacing had an even larger impact.

The Wizard of Oz is riddled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and non sequiturs. These weren't exactly errors, however: they were tradeoffs to achieve a brisk runtime and tonal consistency. Numerous scenes were cut for time and tone, resulting in a movie that feels quickly paced and exciting. Replace the songs with action sequences and the sets with CG, and you're looking at the blueprint for modern blockbusters. This is basically a Marvel movie seventy years ahead of its time. The Wizard of Oz understood that story isn't really the driving force in popular film: what really matters are emotion, character, tone, and (if we're being honest) spectacle. The Wizard of Oz - as well as the countless film genres it inspired - seem to view movies as experiences rather than stories.

If you want to poke at the plot holes and omissions, they're easy to find: we never get any sort of resolution on the threat to Toto's life, the Witch mentions sending an insect after Dorothy in reference to a deleted scene, the reprise to Over the Rainbow is cut... this is a messy movie. And yet, none of that detracts from the experience.

I feel silly even saying this, but the movie's songs hold up, as well. This is especially true of "Over the Rainbow," but... I mean... you already knew that, right?

Same goes for the acting. Judy Garland's great as Dorothy, Margaret Hamilton quite literally serves as the archetype for all witches who follow (arguably all genre villains in film, in fact), and I could go on. The Cowardly Lion, the Woodsmen, the Scarecrow, the Wizard... they're all fantastic performances in extremely difficult circumstances (seriously: look up what happened to the original actor hired to play the Woodsman, as well as Hamilton's accident on set).

This movie is absolutely incredible to behold. If it's been a while since you've given it a rewatch, it's worth doing so, whether at Christmas or any time of the year.

Speaking of which... why is this associated with Christmas in the first place? It's not set during the holidays, and there are no characters or obvious ideas connected to the season. What's going on here?

Let's save that for another article...


  1. The Internet Archive hosts a very good copy of the film for free:


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