Parents sometimes think that if a movie is rated PG, even a kindergartener could handle it. And while that may be the case for some PG-rated movies, it's certainly not the case for "Oz the Great and Powerful." Yes, it's fine for tweens in their last years of elementary school, but for the single-digit set, it will really depend on how susceptible they are to frights.
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 naïve 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.
A Redesigned Oz
Anyone who's seen the original "Wizard of Oz" can probably sketch the general look of the enchanted Emerald City on a cocktail napkin without having to think about it too hard. But the new "Oz the Great and Powerful" had to be careful with how closely the city of Oz looked to the original. The resulting city has a bold new design that is also, oddly, familiar. It's like halfway between Coruscant from the "Star Wars" prequels and some kind of steam punk videogame. In short: it's both old and new (again).
A Male Protagonist
The lead of "The Wizard of Oz" is, quite obviously, Dorothy Gale, played by Judy Garland in an iconic gingham dress. The lead of "Oz the Great and Powerful" is the wizard, played by James Franco. While some of the danger of Oz might be missing, since a strapping lad like Franco is probably better equipped to handle all the weirdness better than a frightened young farm girl, the creators of "Oz the Great and Powerful" have found an equally interesting way into the world, by framing the entire journey as a metaphor for the way Oz interacts with women (including, of course, a trio of witches). It's fascinating, deeply resonant stuff and one of the bigger surprises of the movie.
The Widescreen Format
For the first 30 minutes of "Oz the Great and Powerful," the movie has a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio (not widescreen, in layman's terms) and is filmed, just like the original "Wizard of Oz,” in black-and-white. This is a really wonderful way to start off the movie, as a welcome callback to the original. But when the Wizard finally reaches Oz (via hot air balloon), the frame starts to open up as color starts to bleed in. It's subtle and magnificent and adds to the movie's full-day-at-Disney World feel.
Along with the aspect ratio, "Oz the Great and Powerful," unlike the original "Wizard of the Oz," is being presented in glorious 3D. It would have been nearly impossible for the original "Wizard of Oz" to be presented, theatrically, in 3D. Technicolor was pretty dazzling back in the day though, so the experience, at least, is quite similar.
Way More Witches
One key difference between the 1939 "Wizard of Oz" and "Oz the Great and Powerful" is an emphasis on the witches. Technically, there is still the same amount of witches in each film; it's just that as the original opens, one of them is smushed to death by Dorothy's farmhouse, leading to an iconic toe-curling death scene. Also, Glinda the Good Witch is more of a narrator/spirit animal than an actual character, whereas in "Oz the Great and Powerful," she's fully fleshed out and maybe not as good as you'd want her to be. The interplay between the witches and the transformation of one of them into the frightening Wicked Witch we all know so well, is what largely drives the narrative.
The Wicked Witch's Skin Tone
Everything that was created specifically for the 1939 MGM production of "Wizard of Oz" was strictly off-limits to the filmmakers of "Oz the Great and Powerful" (word is there was a small army of Disney lawyers on set at all times to ensure that things never got too close to the originals). One of the weirder, more noticeable differences is that the shade of the Wicked Witch's green skin has been slightly altered. It's a little bit of a greener green, with less emerald.
Goodbye Flying Monkeys, Hello Flying Baboons
The flying monkeys in the original "Wizard of Oz" were odd, gremlin-y things, with feathery wings and blue skin. For "Oz the Great and Powerful," Raimi and company took an entirely different approach, swapping out the cuddly monkeys for an army of fearsome baboons who are kept aloft by leathery bat-wings. They are much more intense than the original "Oz" monkeys.
No Ruby Slippers
One of the more litigious elements of the original "Wizard of Oz" mythos is the use of the iconic ruby slippers (in the source material, they're made of silver). The use of those slippers comes at a handsome price, and shoehorning (pun intended) them into "Oz the Great and Powerful" would have been awkward, without it also being cost-prohibitively expensive. We were rooting for them to pop up somewhere but, alas, they remain absent.
Okay, so that's not completely true -- there's like half a song when the Wizard meets up with the munchkins. But besides that, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is entirely song-free. While this is probably for the best, there is a part of me that wishes they could have somehow managed to license and then squeeze in "The Jitterbug," a song that was famously removed from the final version of "Wizard of Oz" but periodically pops up in stage productions of the material. (You can <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SP5IcbwVhqI">watch it on YouTube</a>.) As the Oscars a couple of years ago proved, Franco is many things, but a song-and-dance man is not one of them.
It's Entirely Tin Man-Free
While "Oz the Great and Powerful" gives sly nods to both the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion (much more ferocious and lion-y than in the original), there is no reference to the Tin <an at all. This is a sad fate, considering all the winks to the original (even Disney's abysmal "Return to Oz" had a Tin Man type character named Tik Tok).