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How does “The Wizard of Oz” explore core developmental concerns children face growing up?

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People of all ages have adored The Wizard of Oz (1939) for generations. It’s a near-perfect piece of classic Hollywood nostalgia wondrous in its composition, innovation, performance, and whimsy. Despite its age, the film remains an accessible favorite of children not because it can still pass as visually or musically relevant, but because it tells a timeless story that addresses important questions, fears, and challenges that all young people face. It’s the story of a girl facing core developmental struggles that impact everyone, and which continue throughout life.

Dorothy (Judy Garland) is a bit jaded with her sepia-colored life on the farm. Home provides her safety, sanctuary, family, security, and love—but she knows that somewhere beyond the scope of her existence is a world full of experiences she’s yet to have. She’s afraid to leave the comfort of her family and loved ones, but wants more than her daily routine. These things serve as the core of Dorothy’s journey. When she finds herself in Oz, she’s forced to deal with the discomfort of wanting to go back home, and has to rise to the occasion to help herself achieve that goal. She has to discover a balance between respecting the wonderful home life she has and exploring everything else the world has to offer.

The film also directly contrasts children versus adults, and the way kids challenge their authority figures. Adults have more wisdom, but can also have a developed sense of malice that children seldom possess. The characters introduced in the early scenes of The Wizard of Oz foreshadow all the characters Dorothy meets in Oz: The farm workers become her three magical friends, each with their own unique flaw. Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) shows scorn for Dorothy’s dog Toto after he digs up her garden, and she transitions into the Wicked Witch. And the fortune teller Dorothy meets just before the tornado that starts her journey touches down, Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan), becomes The Wizard of Oz himself. The film realizes that children view adults as all-powerful, all-knowing beings during their development, but after experiencing more of what life has to offer come to the realization that adults have their own flaws and failures. Dorothy has to flourish after this discovery. She has to uncover the true nature of people and discover how people in positions of power managed to get that way, and how much that power really means.

Dorothy is a kind and welcoming person. She judges everyone with respect and honesty, which is shown to get her very far within the world of Oz. Her friends, a misfit gang comprised of a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a tin man (Jack Haley), and a bipedal lion (Bert Lahr) work together to thwart the Wicked Witch. Along the way, she’s assisted by munchkins and a well-wishing witch named Glinda (Billie Burke), all of which speaks to the universal message of different groups of people working together toward a common goal. It also reveals that those who hold power—such as the Wicked Witch and Oz—are often little more than bullies or phonies ruling via fear or deception. There was nothing powerful about either of them (save for the witch’s ability to conjure a rogue fireball or two) and they were easily overcome by the goodness and innocence of Dorothy and her friends.

There’s excitement in breaking out of one’s home environment to explore the bright, Technicolor landscape of the unknown, but as Dorothy finds out, there’s no place like home. The film’s message isn’t meant to discourage people from broadening their horizons, but aims to remind them they shouldn’t lose sight of the wonders that exist at home. As children grow up and leave their families, The Wizard of Oz stresses the importance of remembering where you started.