The Wonderful 4K “Wizard of Oz”
As much as we tend to discuss Ultra HD video and high dynamic range in relation to the latest that Hollywood and Netflix have to offer, it’s sometimes easy to forget something quite important: The films that stand to benefit most from current home-video standards aren’t the newest digital spectacles but rather classic works created entirely in the analog domain. Older films simply possess a level of detail and nuance no previous home-video format has been capable of replicating, and short of
cinema revivals, most of us have never seen them in all their splendor.
That said, I don’t know of any film as old as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz to make the leap into 4K/HDR before now. For that matter, I don’t know of any other movies filmed in three-strip Technicolor that have been remastered for 4K/HDR. That alone makes this new home-video release academically interesting, even if the Judy Garland classic holds no emotional sway over you.
Not that it matters, of course, but it does for me. Hold emotional sway, that is. I’ve owned Oz on every home-
video format available in the U.S., including every VHS release, every Laserdisc release, every DVD and Blu-ray. But my love affair goes further back than that. One of my earliest memories is of lying belly-flat on the rug in our den, watching Dorothy and friends traipse down the Gray Brick Road on our old black-and-white tube TV. Much to my dad’s chagrin, that was the start of a yearly tradition for me—one I uphold to this day, every Thanksgiving.
I can almost define each era of my life in relation to how I experienced that annual ritual. My first time viewing it on a color TV was, it should go without saying, a significant revelation. And although there have been upgrades down the road since (the 1989 restoration of the sepia tones in the opening and closing acts, the 2005 restoration and re-alignment of the original Technicolor film strips), rarely has any viewing of Oz blown my mind quite to the same degree as seeing it in color for the first time.
Until now, that is. This new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz is the first that actually manages to replicate the experience of viewing the movie by way of a pristine 35mm print. And this is evident as early as those early sepia-toned shots in Kansas, which you wouldn’t think would make for a great HDR demo. But it’s important to remember that, for all the talk about peak
brightness and nits and whatnot, the most significant boost to dynamic range that HDR delivers is in the lower end of the value scale. There are simply more steps of near-black to work with here, and that’s put to good use in the opening scenes of Oz by dragging detail out of the shadows without brightening the overall image.
It should come as no surprise, though, that this new transfer doesn’t really come to life until Dorothy steps through the
monochromatic door of her wind-tossed home into the rainbow land of Oz. But again, the benefits here may not be what you’re expecting.
If you go in anticipating tons of intense specular highlights, you’re going to be left wanting. Some vibrant peak brightness is used to bring out the sparkle of Glinda’s jewels and of course the gleaming glimmer of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But in all cases, this higher-intensity brightness is organic and tastefully done. So much so that it may only affect you subliminally.
There’s simply no mistaking the color palette of this new transfer for that of any previous home-video release. Early video offerings of Oz did what they could with their limited color gamut. Around the time of the aforementioned remaster in the mid-2000s, though, Warner saw fit to actually boost the color saturation of the movie in order to approximate the Crayola hues Technicolor was capable of delivering.
The problem with this is that the entire color palette of Oz was dragged along for the ride. So, although the Wicked Witch’s verdant skin tones may have looked close enough, subtler colors like the pastel tones of the Lullaby League were overly boosted, overly intense—just plain wrong, when you get right down to it.
When viewed via Kaleidescape, the 10-bit palette of this new release (which was taken from an 8K, 16-bit scan of the original film elements) puts all of the colors in their proper proportions. So, for example, in certain scenes in Munchkinland, subdued pastels share the screen with luscious primary hues—something most of us have never seen outside of the film’s more recent theatrical revivals.
The detail and definition of this new transfer will also henceforth be my response to those who say we don’t need 4K resolution at home. Subtle details that were obscured by previous 1080p and lower-resolution releases are restored for all the world to see—even down to the individual hairs on Dorothy’s head.
Granted, there is, of course, a hefty helping of softness to the image in places, especially in closeup shots of Billie Burke (Glinda). My point is, it’s taken us until this point to finally bring all of the detail in the image—softened, filtered, gauzed though it may be in some scenes—to home displays. I’m struggling to see where even an 8K release could improve on what I’m seeing here in terms of detail and definition, much less color and contrast.
If I have a nit to pick, it’s that this new color grade still gets the opening and closing sepia-toned scenes a little wrong. It’s important to remember that this footage was shot in black-and-white and hand-tinted sepia—and then hand-tinted sepia again in the ‘80s. And, as with every release of the past couple decades, this version takes that sepia tinting just a touch too far, with slightly too much warmth. But that’s really only a concern if you get overly fussy about “filmmaker’s intent.” (Incidentally,
if you’re curious about how I can speak to “filmmaker’s intent” in this case, given that there were so many chefs stirring this pot, we can look to a scene later in the movie in which Dorothy peers into the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball and sees her Aunt Em in Kansas, in all her sepia-tinted glory. That’s what Kansas is supposed to look like.)
And . . . [checks notes] Yep. That’s it. That’s literally the only pedantic niggle I can come up with.
Some viewers may take issue with the fact that those sepia scenes don’t quite hold up to the clarity and definition of the film’s colorful middle. That’s largely due to the fact that the original film negatives for the first and last act were lost in a fire in the 1970s, and have since been sourced from an optical intermediate struck in the 1960s. The only original negatives we have at this point are for the color parts of the film. So this is the best Kansas is ever going to look.
The purist in me also wants to half-heartedly complain about the lack of the the original mono soundtrack with this new release, but I just can’t bring myself to grump about that, given how great the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix sounds. And this is a new remix, by the way—not the same lossless 5.1 mix that was included with the 70th- and 75th-anniversary Blu-rays.
The surround channels are employed a little more frequently this time around, and there’s an appreciable boost to dialogue intelligibility and vocal clarity across the board, along with some enhanced bass, especially during the tornado sequence. But
all in all, this surround sound mix is true to the sprit and overall aesthetic of the film. It’s certainly not as egregious or aggressive as some recent remixes for classic films. So even if the original mono were present, I can’t imagine I would ever listen to it.
As for the Kaleidescape presentation of this new release, my only beef is that, in addition to the 4K/HDR version, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version if you want access to all of the bonus goodies—including the audio commentary with historian and author John Fricke, which carries over from every home-video release since 2005. There’s also the excellent The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic from 1990, hosted by Angela Lansbury, which for some reason was dropped from the 75th-anniversary home video releases but makes a welcome reappearance here.
Oodles of other bonus features are certainly worth your time if you’re a dedicated fan, but these two are essential viewing/listening for everyone, so go ahead and download both versions of the film from the giddy-up. Why you can’t simply download the bonus features without double-dipping on the film itself is beyond me.
But what else is there to be said, really? If you’re reading this, you already know what the film means to you—you’re simply deciding whether or not it’s worth the 4K/HDR upgrade for an 80-year-old film. The answer to that is a resounding, enthusiastic, unapologetic “Yes!” Few films have benefited from the increased resolution, enhanced dynamic range, and most importantly the wider color gamut of our current home video standards nearly so much as this one. My biggest regret is that I can’t put 4K/HDR screen grabs in front of you and let you see the improvements with your own eyes. Unfortunately, the limitations of the web make that impossible.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.