After years of Shrek-like cynicism and fart jokes dominating children’s media, a refreshing tornado of sincerity blows into theaters with the new spectacular Oz the Great and Powerful. A movie which remains true to the spirit of its source material while entertaining and delighting, it’s the best kids’ flick to come along since 2011’s The Muppets bopped into our hearts.
To understand Oz, one must understand the orginal stories, not just the 1939 blockbuster that revolutionized cinema, but also the books by Frank L. Baum and other writers that encapsulated the optimism of the 1920s. It seems hopelessly naive and innocent now, but in aftermath of the horrors of the first world war, people believed that humanity could create a society that was good and just and free from murder, war, and other sundry evils.
Hitler and his death camps ruined that, of course, and few can say “the inherent goodness of man” with a straight face since then.
From this “Happy Days are Here Again” optimism, the land of Oz was born. It is a place with great magic and clever, sometimes self-absorbed characters, but no death, wars, fighting, or evil. In most of the books, not much happens and conflict has to be imported from the outside in the person of Gnome king who wants to imprison the happy people of Oz, or, alternately, from Kansas.
And so it is that Oz the Great and Powerful roughly follows the storyline of The Wizard of Oz even as it creates a prequel setting the stage for Dorothy’s wild adventure.
A traveling magician called Oz (James Franco) turns down his chance at happiness with Annie (Michelle Williams) because he cannot settle for the black and white existence of a salt-of-the-earth farmer from Kansas. Having rejected a good life with a good wife and a steady, decent job for the potential greatness of showbiz, he becomes incorrigible: chasing women (in a purely PG fashion), abusing his assistant, and generally being a two-bit scoundrel.
A tornado blows him to a vibrant, enchanted land cannot blow his character clean.
This land is under the thumb of an evil witch who sends her flying monkeys out to terrorize the fields, farms, and cottages of simple folk. They’ve been waiting for a wizard to save them.
Since being a wizard comes with mountains of gold and the attentions of beautiful witch sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), Oz signs on for the job. He knows he is nothing more than a con man and fake, but hey: Gold! Pretty girls!
It’s not until he meets a little girl made from china, as shattered in her porcelain body as in her psyche by the evil witch’s minions, that Oz begins to think outside himself. By then, however, he has callously mistreated the heart of one innocent woman/witch and conned an entire people, two selfish deeds that will haunt him in the final act.
It’s well-known that movie critics in general are a cynical bunch who get twitchy without their daily dose of irony. It’s not their fault, poor dears, but when Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) looks up at Oz with adoring, pure, saintly eyes and starts talking of the dreams of the people, critics tend to long for a little Quentin Tarantino.
This is why Les Miserables was panned and will have been why Oz the Great and Powerful is not as beloved as it should be.
They are wrong.
The movie is a delight, from the fantasy, jewel-toned visuals to the new characters. The 3D effects play with the technology (look a spear coming at you!) in a way that critics pooh-pooh but kids will love. Although there are shout-outs to the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Horse of a Different Color, and so on, Oz gathers his own new little troop traveling the yellow brick road. He befriends a winged monkey named Finley (voice of Zach Braff) and the precocious china girl (Joey King), both of whom elicit more laughs than anyone expects. James Franco occasionally overacts, but ends up acquitting himself well. Michelle Williams shines, as always, in a purely good role, but the meaty role goes to Mila Kunis as an innocent whose heartbreak leads to great trouble.
Rated PG, the movie has definite suspense at times, with scary flying monkeys, a spooky graveyard, and a battle. It will be too intense for the youngest moviegoers. There is no sexuality, inappropriate language, or gore.
But best of all are the simple, decent messages as rich as Kansas farm soil: Greatness is not as important as goodness. The way to find meaning in life is to put others above yourself. Believe in goodness and decency.
And so this movie is fantastic for kids who already know in their little hearts that decency and goodness can, indeed must, exist somewhere. It’s the adults, seeped in a steady stream of violence and sorrow, who need a refresher that the pure in heart will see Oz.