This is an interesting combination of escapism and a message of staying home that it feels like it could only be made during the Depression. Yes, there are wondrous things out there, but really, you need to stay home and work the farm and every moment you’re away you should be yearning to return. It’s a delightful journey we follow Dorothy on, but that message is so unlike anything in pop culture since.
It really does hinge on two conflicting desires common in the human heart: escape and finding home. Dorothy grows up on a destitute farm in Kansas in the middle of the Great Depression and, by the looks of things, alongside the effects of the Dust Bowl. It makes perfect sense for her to want to leave and find somewhere better, and when a country had 25% unemployment, it was a feeling shared by many people in the real world. Finding Oz, a weird, dangerous, and magical place, Dorothy realizes that she’s missing that which she holds most dear, her aunt and uncle, her family. I do wonder how the adventure would have changed if Aunt Em had joined Dorothy on the trip up and down the twister to land of Oz.
This is one of those movies that seems to work so well in no small part because of its more technical aspects The use of sepia at the beginning to break into Technicolor once Dorothy reaches Oz is a wonderful gateway into a new world, very clearly delineating the “real” world from the “fantasy”. The sets are huge and filled with color. The costumes are theatrical and fit right in with the un-reality of the setting. These technical elements work together really well to sell the fantasy land in all its fantastic glory of bright yellows and greens, populated with witches, Munchkins, and even a man who calls himself a wizard.
But the movie obviously straddles the line between the reality and fantasy of Oz. We want to believe that it’s a real place, like Dorothy insists at the end of the film, but we also know that houses don’t fly up twisters to be transplanted safely (save for those inhabiting the house’s landing spot) to fantastical worlds, and yet we’re still like Dorothy at the end. We want to believe Oz is real because of its imagination grabbing unreality. We’d rather live in a world where Oz exists than in one where it doesn’t. It’s a childlike impulse to grab onto things we know can’t be real, and it manifests perfectly in Dorothy with a great matching effect on the audience.
Yellow brick roads and Emerald Cities aren’t enough to really capture the imagination, though. In a vacuum, those things become boring rather quickly, which is why the Wicked Witch of the West is so important. Margaret Hamilton brings a very real and fantastic sense of menace to every scene she’s in, even while she hams up the entire performance. The overindulgent performance matches the tall evil tower she resides in and the giant glass ball she sees the world through. She’s an antagonist that wholly overmatches the innocent Dorothy, making her eventual nearly accidental defeat all the more satisfying.
Being a fantasy movie for children, everything gets wrapped up quite nicely, except for actually getting Dorothy home. The idea that she’s always had the power to go home matches really well with the fact that her three companions all had the internal qualities they were searching for from the wizard to begin with. The scarecrow comes up with every plan. The tin man cries at every defeat. Even the cowardly lion leads the charge into the witch’s castle. It’s a nice message that you don’t need external markers to have great internal qualities, but you must be the source yourself.
It’s a wonderful childlike adventure that brings out innocent wonder from its audience, using timeless songs, fantastic set design, and marvelous casting to tell the tale.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4