An early pioneer of colour film making, this movie is visually distinctive today due to its use of technicolour film stock, which results in a highly saturated image. Consequently, the film appears almost more "real" than reality, which perfectly suits the dreamlike nature of the story. This is complemented by set designs that feature highly saturated colours and strong contrasts, as well as fantastic plants and architecture. These sets are inhabited by a variety of colourful and distinctive characters.
The beginning and end of the film are set on a (slightly ramshackle) farmstead in depression era Kansas, filmed in sepia-toned black and white. The sets are constucted in a realistic fashion, although complete with cliches such as tumbleweeds and rusting farm equipment. All of this serves to convey (at least initialy) the dull, dusty life that Dorothy (Judy Garland) lives and wishes to escape from.
With the aid of a (quite realistic) tornado, the story is relocated to the land of Oz, and there is a dramatic moment when dorothy and her dog toto step open the front door of their sepia toned farmhouse and step out into the technicoloured wonderland that is Oz. The first glimps of Oz is certainly a doozy, with shiny plastic plants and bright blue ponds, complete with giant lily pads. Set in these surroundings is the Munchkin village, with architecture (and indeed occupants) seems to owe more than a little to the art of Dr Seuss. Indeed, the theatrical ancestry of the film is evident all around, especially in the painted scenic backgrounds that are positioned remarkably close to the action. Indeed, the Time review described it as "Lavish in sets...it is a Broadway spectacle translated into make-believe"
After a stroll through fantastical sets (so visually distinctive that the Variety critic John C. Flinn Sr noted in his review that "Some of the scenic passages are so beautiful in design and composition as to stir audiences by their sheer unfoldment"), during which Dorothy encounters her three companions to be (the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion), the quintet reach the fabled emerald city (shown in the background of the picture above). Here, the film deviates from the original book by L. Frank Baum; in the original the emerald city is not actually made of emeralds (or even actually green), but everyone in the city has goggles with green lenses "to protect their eyes from the dazzling brilliance of the emeralds" locked onto their head for the duration of their stay, while in the film the emerald city is green (and its occupants also wear nothing but green).
The action then moves to an altogether darker collection of sets, as Dorothy et al journey to the fortress of the Wicked Witch of the West through a dead landscape of barren rocks and gnarled, scrubby bushes. The castle itself is grey and cold in appearance, the only colour coming in the form of the green skinned guards and their red-trimmed uniforms. This helps convey to the audience that this is an area distinct from the cheerful, colourful lands of the rest of Oz, as well as keeping it distinct from the sepia-tinted images of Dorothy's home in Kansas.
Although Dorothy eventually makes it home to Kansas (where she is told that her adventure is in fact all "just a dream"), this is a somewhat bittersweet moment; as Critic Roger Ebert noted in his review "The ending has always seemed poignant to me. Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again."