So, what made Garland's version different? And why has it been so difficult for filmmakers to replicate that success? To find out, I called John Fricke, an Oz historian and member of the International Wizard of Oz Club. (I'll repeat that: The International Wizard of Oz Club. It actually exists, and Ray Bradbury was allegedly a member.) "MGM had the best of the best and put them all to work," Fricke told me. "Baum knew how to entertain, MGM was about entertainment, and Garland was one of the supreme entertainers of the time."
In other words, The Wizard of Oz was a perfect collision of talent and opportunity. MGM producer Mervyn LeRoy famously assigned more than a dozen screenwriters to put together the film's script, Fricke explained, which meant the most far-fetched ideas—such as a misguided romantic subplot between Dorothy and the Scarecrow—didn't make the cut. "The script was so very, very loyal to Baum's basic philosophy and basic plot," he added. The crew spent an "unprecedented" six months shooting the film—in no small part thanks to the demands of three-strip Technicolor production—while MGM spent nearly $3 million on the project. Even before it was released, it was a big deal.
The Wizard of Oz didn't become an American touchstone simply because of it was well made, though. It doesn't still resonate simply because it's entertaining. There's something viscerally satisfying about this movie—something Fricke attributes to the "emotional truth" of Baum's original story—that grounds its peculiar fantasy in a surprisingly familiar world. Dorothy Gale is a lonely teenager who realizes that, maybe, she's not so alone after all. She grows up right before our eyes, in vivid Technicolor. Who can't relate to that? The quotes and costumes stick in our minds—even if we don't realize it—but only because the story that lies beneath has such universal appeal.
This is where the other Oz movies fail. In Return to Oz, a bizarre sequel Disney made in 1985, Dorothy is committed to a sanitarium for electroshock treatment. The Wiz, a 1978 musical adapted from a Broadway show, is more upsetting to watch than it is endearing. In 2007, a television miniseries called Tin Man set Dorothy in bleak, dystopian sci-fi. All of these projects lacked that unique blend of poignant familiarity and broad cultural appeal that anchored The Wizard of Oz. Without it, they're just creepy stories about a girl and her weird friends.
And now, there's Oz the Great and Powerful. Director Sam Raimi's affection for the story stands out, but otherwise, the latest attempt to rekindle his magic is a mediocre, bloated exercise in big-budget boredom. It's no exaggeration to say that best part of Oz the Great and Powerful is its inventive title sequence. James Franco strikes an interesting balance between charm and sleaze as Oscar Diggs, the traveling magician who becomes the man behind the curtain, but as some critics have pointed out, his character represents a stark departure from Baum's feminist leanings. The witches (played by Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, and Michelle Williams) may be great and powerful, but they're forced into ill-fitting roles for the sake of Diggs's romantic redemption. Is this relatable? Not really—unless you look like and act like a two-bit playboy. Almost by default, though, Oz the Great and Powerful is still one of the least-terrible Oz movies ever made. (No disturbing medical treatments? Check. No "gritty" characters? Check. No Liza Minnelli? Check.) It's not good, but it's not nearly as bad as what's come before it.