When is a classic not a classic? How about when your audience member isn’t the least bit interested in the movie you are trying to show?

Such was the lesson learned when we tried to watch Victor Fleming’s 1939 Oscar winner The Wizard of Oz with our two boys. 

P.J., our 7-year-old, gave it “a 1 out of 5.” Oh, I forgot to mention that ever since P.J. started tagging along to press screenings for films like Cars 2, Mr. Popper’s Penguins or The Smurfs, he has been writing reviews. Mostly they run three or four lines, and they’re all plot, but they’re adorable (I’m biased) and he always – always! – emphasizes the star rating. His little brother, who’s three and wants to do every single thing his older brother does, also rates movies, but they all get “a six out of nine.” That’s fair.

Oz, however, bombed with our oldest son, who was quick to tell me that the house falling on the witch “wasn’t funny” (though in fairness to Victor Fleming, I’m not sure he was going for the laugh). He called the “talking bear” silly (OK, it was a lion, but point taken), and said he didn’t care for the metal soldier. Talk about heartless!  

But his brother kind of dug it, and I’ll happily explain why in this week’s column. So, let’s cue up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, look for the hanging munchkin, click our heels three times and figure out when you can watch The Wizard of Oz with your kids. 

Red Flags: “If I Only Had a Brain”

“Not another song,” was P.J.’s surprising reaction to the Scarecrow’s ode, “If I Only Had a Brain.” And this from a kid who recently re-watched The Sound of Music with us for the benefit of a When Can I Watch piece. 

Musicals might not be every kid’s cup of tea. The genre, once the benchmark of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s major studios, has fallen by the wayside with each passing generation. And while my sons had little trouble with “Do Re Mi,” the silliness of E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen’s musical compositions — from the “Lullaby League” and “The Lollipop Guild” to the joyous “Merry Old Land of Oz” — kind of rubbed them the wrong way. 

Fleming’s fairy tale can have that effect. Nevermind the fact that the 1939 musical’s woefully dated for any kid raised in the modern age. But Fleming’s telling of L. Frank Baum’s novel plays out like an acid-trip sprint through Walt Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride. It isn’t slow, as older films tend to be. Just strange. Imaginative and strange. Depending on your child’s age, it’s entirely accurate to state that The Wizard of Oz might be “a film unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

And your child’s response to Oz might depend on how imaginative and strange they are, in return. From the moment Dorothy crash lands at the mouth of the yellow brick road and realizes she isn’t in Kansas anymore, your kids have to open their minds to the wonders (and dangers) of that magical land located somewhere over the rainbow. 

There they’ll find enchanted treasures, which we’ll cover in our Green Lights section … including a green-skinned Witch who affected my oldest son in ways I didn’t imagine. I’ll explain. 

Green Lights: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

It struck me watching Oz with my boys, after not having seen it from start to finish in years, that this is pure camp. Forget Rocky Horror … there need to be late-night screenings of Oz, complete with costumes and group sing-alongs. Are there already? Someone help me out with that. 

Brendan, our 3-year-old, was charmed by the kindly scarecrow, whose physical antics kept him amused. He decided on the spot that he wanted to be the Cowardly Lion for Halloween. He loved the horse of a different color, who changes from purple to red and yellow with each passing scene. “This is totally weird,” was Brendan’s response to the Munchkins. To be fair, he had the same reaction to Wonka’s oompa loompas.

P.J., however, only perked up whenever the Wicked Witch surfaced, throwing a fireball at the Scarecrow of summoning winged monkeys to stop Dorothy from completing her quest. The “jaded” young audience member who has seen “everything” was more than a little bored by Dorothy’s detour, even though we had some pretty interesting discussions about dreams, and how people we know and love sometimes make it into our nighttime movies. 

Both boys kind of enjoyed making the connection between the cartoonish farm hands in the first half hour and the friends Dorothy makes in Oz. Black-and-white cinematography (actually, Oz is more sepia-toned than anything) was a bust with my boys, much like modern 3D is a bust with their dad. They were impressed by the gusty tornado effects, though they laughed their faces off at the men in the rowboat outside Dorothy’s window. 

Ultimately, Brendan was far more amused by Dorothy’s journey through Oz than P.J., a surprising fact that leads me to an altogether unexpected conclusion.

Appropriate Age

The Wizard of Oz works better on the young, who shouldn’t yet be savvy to modern, sophisticated entertainment and still can fall under the film’s sweet, simple spell. 

Based on our experience, your window of opportunity is small. Start early … probably around 4 years old. There’s nothing too terrifying in Oz, but the camp value of the film’s period-accurate “special” effects will have older kids chuckling or – worse than that – bored.

While there’s no denying Oz’s status as a Hollywood classic, there’s a very good chance it’s appeal will sail over the head of your film geek in training, possibly landing somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. 

For previous entries in the “When Can I Watch That With My Kids?” series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and two of the Transformers flicks.
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