The Wizard in 3D: IMAX and Chinese and Oz, Oh My!

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. Follow the yellow brick road. And your little dog, too! I’m melting! Ding dong the witch is dead. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

The Wizard of Oz has likely contributed as much to the American lexicon as anything prior to Star Trek. (Just kidding— though “I’m giving ‘er all she’s got, Capt’n, He’s dead, Jim, Engage, Fascinating, Make it so, and I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer” do have their loyal fans.) The movie wasn’t a huge hit when it first opened in 1939, but it made up for it years later, particularly starting in the 1950s when it became an annual TV event.

Oz didn’t produce its full impact on the black and white televisions of the day, but nevertheless enchanted new audiences. The cast was perfection, and while everyone loves the 16 year-old Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow performance, veteran comic Bert Lahr nearly steals the show as the Cowardly Lion. In later years, as his movie career stalled (though he kept busy on Broadway and TV), he said he was unfortunately typecast as a lion, and lion parts were hard to come by.

The movie has also surfed wave after wave of entertainment technology, appearing on each new home video format from VHS to Blu-ray and everything in between. Theatrical exhibitions in recent years, however, have been sporadic at best. But starting today (Friday, September 20th), the film will be shown for a week in IMAX theaters across the country. The occasion is its upcoming 75th anniversary. The film actually premiered in August 1939, so we seem to be a year early. But the filming commenced in October 1938, so perhaps they’re using that date instead.

The even bigger news is that these IMAX showings will be in digital 3D. There’s much talk about the film having been restored, but the restoring this time around would appear to be largely devoted to the 3D conversion, plus any work needed to make it look its best in digital IMAX. The film itself has already been restored and re-mastered more than once, including for its first Blu-ray release in 2009, accompanied at that time by a very limited theatrical run.

I know some of you are probably wondering what’s next, Gone With the Wind in 3D, or Citizen Kane (colorized, of course)? But after seeing an advanced IMAX screening of Oz earlier this week, I can say that 3D doesn’t diminish it a bit. The 3D was very well done, and entirely appropriate for the movie—unlike, say, colorizing Casablanca. It looked great in other respects as well. I have only three critiques. First, the 3D made me more conscious of the painted 2D backgrounds in many scenes. Second, as with the recent, beautifully produced but dramatically lame and too-frantic by half “prequel,” Oz the Great and Powerful, the sepia-toned opening scenes in Kansas were in 3D. They should have been in 2D, making the transition to Oz even more eye-popping by having it switch not only to color but to 3D as well. Perhaps they feared audiences would be flocking to the lobby in that first 15 minutes, complaining about their defective 3D glasses!

Third, I’m wondering if they used processing to minimize film grain. Two days after the IMAX showing I pulled out my 2009 Blu-ray, the most recent home video release currently available. The film grain typical of older films was immediately evident when viewed on a 65-inch flat panel (the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60). But I didn’t notice film grain at all in the theater. It wouldn’t be surprising if some grain reduction were used, given how obvious 1939-era film grain might be on a huge IMAX screen. But if this was indeed the case, I can’t say that it compromised the picture in any significant way.

The second part of this story is the venue where I saw the film. The historic Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood is now the TCL Chinese IMAX Theater, having recently been purchased by the Chinese consumer electronics company TCL. But TCL did more than just add IMAX equipment and a big IMAX screen. They converted the theater to stadium seating by literally cutting through the existing floor and extending the now steep-sloped seating area typical of an IMAX theater into the former basement. They also performed other renovations, some modest (the unique design of the Chinese theater’s interior remains largely intact, including the screen curtain) and some significant (improved acoustics and new, comfortable seating). With a capacity of over 900, this is now said to be the largest IMAX theater auditorium in North America. The screen is merely the third largest, at a modest (ulp!) 94 feet x 46 feet. For the 4:3 Oz, the width of the screen was masked off appropriately.

I’m not sure how TCL softened up the Hollywood preservation police to allow these changes—they reportedly nixed the addition of much needed sound absorption when the theater went THX years ago, on the grounds that it would alter the classic décor. The result was a too-reverberant auditorium (as it was pre-THX), which compromised dialogue intelligibility. THX gave the theater certification anyway—how could the most famous movie palace in LA, and perhaps in the world, not be THX? But for that reason Grauman’s Chinese theater was never my favorite place in town to see a movie.

That preference may now change. I can’t yet comment on the sound at the Chinese IMAX; the film’s 1939 audio is not exactly a sonic showpiece and the dialogue, while intelligible, was a bit edgy at the fairly loud playback level used. But even apart from the 3D (which never looked even vaguely dim thanks to the use of two, 2K IMAX digital projectors), I doubt that the movie has ever looked or sounded better in a theatrical showing. Certainly it didn’t look nearly as good 74 years ago, given the limitations of 1939 film projection, not to mention the difficulty of mechanically aligning the three elements of the film’s 3-strip Technicolor negatives to create release prints—a process much improved by today’s digital technology. And no screen in that era was even close to this large. Prior to the advent of Cinerama and CinemaScope in the early 1950s, movie theater screens, by today’s standards, were tiny.

While the experience of seeing The Wizard of Oz in 3D at the TCL Chinese IMAX was thrilling, I look forward to experiencing newer widescreen films there on the screen’s full width. If you live in the LA area, or plan to be visiting there, you will want to check out this theater—even if you miss out on it taking you to Oz.

On October 1, following its IMAX run, The Wizard of Oz will be re-released anew in several Blu-ray versions, from basic 2D and 3D sets up to a premium-priced, 75th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition. Many of the bonus features on the latter were included in 2009’s 70th anniversary Blu-ray 3-Disc Emerald Edition. If you‘re intrigued by the 2013 Collector’s Edition, but already have that 2009 set, check carefully to be certain that the new features are, for you, worth the new set’s high price. For my part, I’m keeping the 2009 discs but also adding the basic 3D release to my own collection.