Review: ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Blows Away Cynicism

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Shrek is cynical? You lost me there. It’s about a love so pure that it sees beyond superficial surfaces.

  • And Les Miz is also about great, pure, and unconditional love. I have no idea where you’re finding cynicism in either of these sources.

  • Rebecca W

    I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it based on the trailers, but now I do. Thanks for this review!

    Btw, did you happen to notice any sick children in the theater?

    OZ the Great & Powerful (& vomit inducing)

  • Rebecca W

    Also had a thought about cynicism in the movies. We see that a lot of course, but even more than that, they’re laden with the “wink wink” of irony.

  • TG

    I believe that L. Frank Baum’s dates are 1856 to 1919, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first of thirteen in the series, was published in 1900, not the 1920s. These accurate dates accord better with your ideas of a period of genuine optimism for it doesn’t seem to me that the 1920s was a time of true optimism, but rather frenetic forgetfulness of the horrors people experienced during what was then known as The Great War. Thank you for your review of the film.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    Yes. Les Miz is not the least bit cynical. That’s why it’s panned.

    Shrek, see, is more complicated. In order for stories to work, they have to have something true at the core. But the universe Shrek exists in and even the idea of celebrating being ugly, it’s cynical and extremely ironic. Beauty is not good in itself. Beauty is really ugly. There is a way to read it that is pure, as you say, but there’s also cynicism there.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    That’s a good point. Baum was published from 1900 to 1920, and then others took over the series. I think , however, his greatest popularity was in the 20s. I’ll have to do more research.

  • Chris

    I disagree with your argument. Firstly, stories about the land of Oz predate the first world war by a number of years. The very first book, from which the 1939 movie is based was published in 1900, and was immensely popular among children for a number of years. So the idea that the land of Oz was somehow borne out of the “Happy Days are Here Again” optimism at the end of the first world war may not be be accurate.
    Secondly, critics are not impressed with “Oz the Great and Powerful” because it departs significantly from the children’s books it claims to be a part of. Frank Baum’s books are remarkable they highlight the role of strong women in society. Throughout his books, it is female characters who often show strength and resilience in the face of adversity. In this movie adaptation, the significant characters seem to have adopted the “damsel in distress” or princess trapped in a tower complex, waiting for the handsome knight to come to their aid. In the Land of Oz, the Character of the wizard was described as a weaselly man, a “hambug”. Contrasted to the female characters who are pillars of fortitude and strength, even the evil ones. The movie is certainly visually appealing. However Disney did this generation a disservice by attempting to make James Franco’s character into something it was not in the original written literature. Additionally, James Franco is just not good in the role written for the movie.