We have all heard about the classic giant that is 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. It was a masterpiece that has shaped so many generations after its release. It starred Judy Garland who portrayed the young farm girl named Dorothy Gale, who was deposited in the land of Oz and must seek the help of the Wizard of Oz to help her get back to her home in Kansas. She is joined by a Scarecrow in search of a brain, a Tin Woodman in search of a heart and a Cowardly Lion who desires courage and they all learn some valuable lessons on the way.
The 1939 film was followed by an unofficial sequel produced by Disney in 1985 that saw Fairuza Balk as Dorothy, as she returns to Oz with her talking chicken Billina. The two face off against the evil Nome King with some new friends and a few familiar faces. That movie became a cult classic and a nostalgia favorite, despite bombing incredibly hard at the box-office.
Last, but not least, there was the other unofficial prequel movie from 2013 Oz: The Great and Powerful which starred James Franco as Oscar Diggs who arrives in the Land of Oz and faces the wrath of the witches of East and West. The film did moderately well at the box office, despite also receiving mixed reviews from critics.
The reviews and box office performance, however, are not why I am here talking about these three différent but similar films that were inspired by L. Frank Baum’s genius. The reason I wanted to talk about these three films is purely based on their merits and why the 1939 film worked, while the latter two films did not and it all comes down to two things: Practicals and color. Those are the defining factors that made The Wizard of Oz so great.
It’s probably a mystery why I picked those specific categories inside of this essay when talking about the Oz movies, but these facets of the films are incredibly important that make the magical land of Oz truly enchanting in all of cinema. Imagine, if you will, a venn diagram where “practicals” are one circle and “color” is another circle and they both intersect. Return to Oz would be under “practicals”, Oz: The Great and Powerful would be under “color” and The Wizard of Oz would reside in both circles.
Let me explain why these things are important and why I put them there.
These are the tools that filmmakers use on set in real-time, which means that there is no computer-generated imagery (CGI) or computer trickery, meaning that what you see is basically what you get in the shot. Using makeup for actors that play Orcs in The Lord of the Rings instead of CGI would be considered using practicals.
I claimed earlier that Return to Oz would fall under this category because of its incredible use of practicals and lack of CGI. The lack of CGI is most likely due to the fact that the film was released in 1985 and that sort of technology was in its infancy stages.
With that being said, the film prides itself on using makeup and costumes to create its characters and creatures. The film works as a more realistic approach to the marvelous land of Oz in what materials it uses and how it is shot. It doesn’t look like it has been bombarded with a plethora of CGI and that isn’t to say that CGI is a bad thing, but for the sake of this film, it seems more natural and doesn’t burden itself with too much artificial constructions like its predecessor before. Oz: The Great and Powerful doesn’t manage to muster that, which leads me to my next point.
Speaking of that well-intentioned 2013 James Franco film, I remember watching it back in 2013, almost ten long years ago and I remembered how much color it had in its picture and in its frame, especially when detailing the beauty of the land of Oz. Its vibrant use of color hearkened back to the olden days of Judy Garland and 1939’s cinema.
Since it has been a while since 1985 and even longer since 1939, the technology jumped a massive amount since that time and CGI usage was inevitable. You can almost tell where the green screen starts and ends. Again, that isn’t inherently a bad thing but that’s why it doesn’t get any points for practicality.
The bottom line for why the 1939 remains the victor is that it achieved both color and practicality. The Judy Garland film was magical in how colorful and vibrant it remained in its production design like the 2013 film and it also used a plethora of practicals to drench the audience in a stream of realism so that way every frame that you saw was almost real and effects were done as practically and innovatively as possible, since CGI was not a thing, much like in the 1985 film.
The 1985 film won in the practicals department because of its minimal use of artificiality and CGI and its use of puppetry and models. However, the film lacked color and, ultimately, looked washed out and dull when compared to the other two films, which is why it hasn’t resonated the same stirring feeling the 1939 film left audiences.
The 2013 Disney prequel was more wondrous-looking with respect to its use of color and its lively palette that is reminiscent of the 1939 film. However, there is so much CGI that the film seems to rely heavily on the bombastic computer tricks that the previous two films didn’t have or even need.
1939’s The Wizard of Oz encompassed all of these facets and combined beautiful, stark, and striking color with practicals, which is why it has aged so well, in comparison to the other two films. These two aspects might seem innocuous and small but they have made all of the difference. I’m glad to have the ability to critique these films based on their own merits.