Watching “The Wizard of Oz” as a child, I never understood why Dorothy wanted to go home so badly. She lived on this brownish-colored farm with an aunt who always seemed mean, as well as three younger guys who didn’t seem very nice either, not to mention the mean lady on the bicycle who wanted to stuff Toto in a basket. Why wouldn’t she want to stay in a magical land where pretty witches wear pink ballgowns and travel by bubble, and where lions aren’t nearly as scary as they seem?
Now, as an adult, “Wizard” makes a lot more sense. I think there is a perfectly good reason why this is often the first film we see as children. It’s magical, it’s enchanting, the music is catchy and whimsical, but, like childhood, it contains a dark underbelly that relates to the very real fears of young children.
Consider this: Dorothy is about 12 when her aunt tells her to find a place where there isn’t any trouble. That is about the age when a child is about to cross the threshold from child to teenager, and it is a confusing time. Should I play with toys? Am I too old for them? What, then, can I do? What else is out there? That place “over the rainbow” represents the “everything else” part of life, the dark, hazy space outside of the farm that you’ve heard mentioned by adults.
However, Dorothy also discovers that the other side of the rainbow has its shadows. While there is a beautiful witch in a pink dress, there is also a cruel, ugly witch who rules by threats and black magic; while there is a lion who isn’t ruthless, there are other creatures who fill that role. Also, Dorothy learns for the first time that adults don’t always have all the answers. The Wizard himself is an adult, though not the upstanding leader Dorothy once hoped. When he says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” Dorothy realizes that even adults who are meant to be good are flawed, and sometimes even dishonest, and this is a difficult truth for children to face.
There have been many interpretations of “The Wizard of Oz.” Many see it as a story about politics veiled by a thin layer of fairytale. Others see it as a spiritual film, with Dorothy’s journey reflecting some central Buddhist, New Age, or Christian beliefs. For most of us, though, it’s just the story we first knew. It is a part of us that we will share with our children, as our parents and grandparents shared it with us. “Wizard” is one of the rare films in history that is connected to a part of us; most of us can recall a fond memory about watching it, even if it scared us to death and gave us nightmares.
Watching “The Wizard of Oz” again, as I have dozens of times before, I realized that the main reason the performances are so good, so uninhibited, is because Judy Garland and the rest of the cast probably had no idea they were making a cultural landmark. When they went to work every morning, and poor Bert Lahr spent five hours a day getting made up to look like a lion, they probably never imagined that the film they were slaving other would become the best children’s film ever made. They took us over the rainbow, showed us its dark side, and gave us the courage to face our own fears, and for that, “The Wizard of Oz” remains in our hearts and on our television screens, as popular today as it was back then.