Recently my daughter and I attended a screening of Oz The Great and Powerful, which opens today. I’m a huge fan of The Wizard of Oz for many reasons, among them the singing, the story, good vs. evil, and the Wicked Witch (when I was little she terrified me to the point of having nightmares). But the main reason that The Wizard of Oz is one of my all-time favorite movies is because it has loads and loads of heart. I care about Dorothy and her friends and what happens to them. When Dorothy is frightened, I’m frightened, and when she gets up the nerve to act and save her friends, I feel triumphant at her transformation.
Oz The Great and Powerful was a good movie, but it is not a great movie. It lacks both heart and a really engaging story, and attempts to make up for it with some truly amazing special effects.
Oz is presented in 3D, and it makes great use of it. From debris flying during a tornado to spears seeming to appear from behind my own shoulder, the 3D is exciting. The other special effects – especially a monkey who travels with The Wizard for most of the movie – are completely convincing. The costumes are gorgeous. The extras are detailed and delightful. Oz is as bright and colorful as Kansas is monochrome and dreary. It’s all done very well.
Which just leaves the story and the actors. I really, really wanted to love this movie, and I do love the cast. James Franco has just the right touch of weirdness for the womanizing, slightly self-centered magician (I spent the first twenty minutes of 127 Hours wondering where he was going to bury the bodies of the two female hikers; his slight creepiness is used much better here, even if they don’t take it far enough). Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz are gorgeous as sister witches Theodora and Evanora (although I do wonder if they were brought up in vastly different territories of Oz since one has a British accent), and Michelle Williams is all goodness and light as Glinda.
But the story: I needed more. The origins and motivations of the various witches are confusing. With no real back story and no obvious parameters for their powers, I had a hard time getting into their battles – someone would win because the script said so, not because it made sense.
As for The Wizard, if he had started out as more sinister – if I’d thought for a moment that he was capable of abandoning his friends and being truly selfish – the movie would have had some real suspense. But from the beginning he’s shown to have a good heart, he’s just a bit of a cad. His character has no real chance for transformation. Looking through director Sam Raimi’s filmography there’s really nothing there to suggest that he could take a big story like this and make it character-driven (A Simple Plan was a long time ago). I think they would have been better off going with someone who had less super-hero experience and more story experience.
One aspect of the movie that I really do appreciate is how it sets things up for the original Wizard of Oz movie. The basics are all there. There’s a yellow brick road, Munchkins who sing, Winkies that march and chant, etc. (and while I could be wrong, I think they even set up the love of The Wizard’s life to be Dorothy’s grandmother!). And while everything in this version of Oz is more heightened than in the original, there’s nothing that stands out as being completely incompatible with the Oz we all know and love. They didn’t destroy our memories, they just tweaked them and added to them. In fact, I think the biggest criticism I could give this movie is that it made me want to go home and watch The Wizard of Oz.
I really hate doing separate reviews for “kid” movies, one for the intended audience and one for the grown-ups stuck taking them. A really good kid movie might have different meanings for different age groups, while still managing to be engaging for everyone. But this is one of those movies that needs a separate assessment. While it left me slightly bored, it’s worth noting that Fiona loved it. She recommends it for all kids seven and up (she says she might have been too scared when she was seven, but now that she’s a very mature eight, she was fine). There was a four-year-old sitting next to me who didn’t seem too scared, so I think it just depends on the kid – there are some scary parts, use caution.
Should you take your kids to see it? I think so. Just don’t expect to be engrossed in the story yourself.
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