Oz, the Great and Powerful

Director:  Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis
Review: 3 stars (of five)

I enjoyed Oz, The Great and Powerful, because it had a great cast, captivating visuals and, most importantly, Sam Raimi at the helm. For many, enjoyment is the first and last question: I had a good time watching the film, and that’s all that needs be said. People as clear-headed as that, however, do not sit around typing up movie reviews, so none of us are getting out of here that easily.

I had three questions or criteria to apply to this new adventure into the magical land invented by Frank L. Baum and made sacred in the hearts of millions of children by Victor Fleming’s 1939 film:

1. Is it a good and enjoyable film on its own merits?
2. Does it betray or enhance the 1939 classic?
3. Apart from how it relates to our memories of Judy Garland, is it suited to a young audience, because PG-13 rating or no, a new Oz spectacle is a magnet for young kids.

To the first question: There is much to enjoy here. James Franco is a good choice to play the young Midwestern huckster who becomes the Great and Powerful Oz. He plays youthful charm and greasy slickness in just the right balance to tell us the story of a man who cons a magical land of gullible boobs and manages to become a slightly better human being in the process. He is surrounded by three fantastic witches, with Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz spanning the moral spectrum as the most notable powers in Oz.

Relying on some elements of Baum’s other Oz novels, the film deviates to become an origin story for Margaret Hamilton’s classic green witch, as we see how the Dorothy dynamic of wicked witches versus reclusive “wizard” was established. The story itself is a deliberate parallel of the familiar Dorothy tale. Oz is twister-transported to the technicolor wonderland, and promptly enlisted as a witch-killer. On his route to his wicked rendezvous, he picks up a few unlikely friends, and in the end triumphs over true magical power with a little homespun pluck and, in this case, some solid American science.

The whole thing is played with a little nudge-wink to the audience, a cheesy “puttin’ on a show” vibe that meshes well, for the most part, with the simple fairy-tale storytelling. At times, the CGI looks deliberately unconvincing, and you’re as aware of the green screen behind Franco as you are of the point behind Garland where the yellow brick road becomes the painted back wall of her set. There are also fantastically subtle nods to the origins of the scarecrow, lion and tin man without the painful and inappropriate cameos that would’ve been George Lucas’ primary mission in making this movie. And though Raimi’s story is more in line with the book Oz-verse than the better-known film (in which Dorothy merely dreams it all), Raimi includes some of the doubling used in that film, with a few actors playing dual roles in our world and Oz. Raimi’s tender affection for the source material is really what saves this film from the many kinds of disaster it should’ve been.

There are some missteps. Sometimes that tongue-in-cheek attitude detracts from the emotional impact, distancing us from the characters and situations. The film does have “heart” and a few moments of solid emotional wallop, but it seems that modern filmmakers weren’t confident in playing the straight sincerity of the 1939 film. Also, there’s an awful lot of emphasis put on Franco’s love of the ladies, and he spends a lot of his efforts on seduction. Nothing that a young child shouldn’t see, but it’s jarring in contrast with the sexless Fleming movie.

And one of Franco’s companions is a computer-generated china doll whose intro to the film is that her entire community, including her family, has just been brutally murdered. That’s not shown on screen, but it’s implied and discussed, and it seems a little much, frankly, for a film destined to draw such young audiences.

Second question: Does it make Judy Garland sad? Its contemporary attitude only slightly cheapens the classic world of Oz, and Raimi does nothing to directly “ruin” the earlier film. There’s the question of whether children exposed to this slick, digital, 3D Oz will retain a taste for the simpler, clunkier 1939 masterpiece, but that’s for parents to decide: At what age is your child ready to be ruined? You make the call. Beyond that question inherent to any modern take, this film does not disrespect its forebear.

Third Question: Can little kids see it? There is no more violence than in Return of the Jedi. There are flying monkeys scarier than the ones in The Wizard of Oz, and those old monkeys have somehow managed to terrify generations of five-year-olds, so be careful there. Again, there’s a little girl surviving genocide, and an Oz who’s all about romancin’ the babes, but the violence and the smooching shouldn’t freak out most kids. The story has a certain PG-13 sophistication, meaning that younger kids might do a lot of that “Mom, why is she going there?” and “What are they doing now?” But again, to say it’s on a level of adultness comparable to the Star Wars films (not as “adult” as Ep III, though) is probably a pretty good measurement.

In the end, I enjoyed the ride. I can’t get over the feeling that the film could be pulled apart and found more wanting than I’m describing—I’m not sure the script and character arcs hold up to detailed scrutiny, but I’m also not inclined to workshop the thing. It’s not going to join the Judy Garland film as a perennial masterpiece that endures for decades, but many of us will return to it more than once. And hey, it’s also not the brutal, criminal assault on childhood that was 2010’s The Nutcracker, so count your lucky stars, parents.

(An aside: Victor Fleming directed many films, few of them remembered today. But in 1939 he directed both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. When that guy was hot, he was red freakin’ hot.)