Director Sam Raimi has made a visual spectacle full of vibrant landscapes and kitschy set pieces. James Franco plays the ambitious magician nicknamed Oz who doesn't want to settle down with a sweetie and be a good Kansas man; he wants glory and greatness. After an entertaining black-and-white sequence that sets up Oz's reputation as the Casanova of the traveling carnival circuit, a tremendous twister whisks his hot air balloon away to a mysterious (and colorful) and new land -- that just happens to bear his name. There he meets a trio of witches and must figure out which one is wicked, which one is good, and how he can live up to the prophecy that he's the Wizard of Oz.
Kids old enough to handle the darker themes and scenes will enjoy the special effects and the humorous banter of Oz's two adorable sidekicks (a cute little monkey named Finley and as feisty china doll). Parents will snicker and sigh, but they'll miss the magic of Victor Fleming's original.
Here are issues to consider or discuss before seeing the movie.
1. Wicked Witches: Although Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are beautiful, they are most definitely wicked. Evanora is especially manipulative and duplicitous, but once she convinces Theodora to join her on the dark side, it's clear that without a heart, the Wicked Witch of West is an even greater threat to Oz. She's a woman scorned, and it's a scary sight -- literally. The sisters are also not afraid to cause pain, and in one particularly disturbing scene, they torture Glinda (Michelle Williams) again and again, trying to suck out all of her light, her goodness, that Oz desperately needs. They might be pretty (at first), but these are mean (and green) witches indeed.
2. The Womanizer of Oz: One of the more surprising elements of the movie is the fact that Oz, not the most likeable of characters at first, is quite the ladies' man, in the worst way possible. He woos women -- human and witch alike -- by pretending he's giving them a sacred gift, a beautiful music box that once belonged to his dearly departed grandmother. He does this with so many women that in the Kansas part of the movie, Oz's faithful assistant (Braff) asks if he should fetch another music box when a young woman comes to the door. In fact, Oz kisses four different women and is even the root of the naive Theodora's transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West. That hideous green, it seems, is made of jealousy.
3. Broken China Town: There are several sad and frightening moments in "Oz," but the one that will break young audience's hearts is when Oz and Finley discover the shattered remains of "China Town," an enclave of people and places made of porcelain china. After the flying baboons destroy it, Oz and Finley find one broken China Girl. She's crying and has the equivalent of severed limbs, but Oz fixes her with glue (something he couldn't do with the wheelchair-bound girl back in Kansas). China Girl is funny and brave, but she also mourns the loss of her family and her people -- as will kids extra-sensitive to the issue of death.
4. Flying Baboons: As a young girl, I remember being terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West's flying baboons. My mother fast-forwarded the monkeys so often that the VHS tape eventually sputtered during those scenes. Evanora's baboon army makes the 1939 monkeys seem like Curious George. Well, maybe not, but these computer-generated, 3D-enhanced killer primates can be shockingly scary. At the press screening there was a collective set of little gasps whenever the baboons were shown, and for good reason: they swoop down like a swarm of locusts and cause wide-spread destruction and harm.
5. Read It Then See It: Any time an adaptation is in theaters, it's important to acknowledge its source material, in this case not just the enduring popularity of Victor Fleming's classic film, but also the children's book by L. Frank Baum, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Originally published at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the book was so popular that Baum wrote 13 more Oz novels about Dorothy's adventures in the mythical Land of Oz. If your kid is too young (or sensitive to violence) to see the movie yet, consider adding the original as a family read-aloud and then catch the movie after it's out on DVD.