DVD Release Date: June 11, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: March 8, 2013
Rating: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Genre: Fantasy
Run Time: 130 min. 
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobb, Tony Cox

Since its release in 1939, The Wizard of Oz has become so beloved that no one dared to make a sequel until Walter Murch’s Return to Oz in 1985, based on Oz author L. Frank Baum’s "Ozma of Oz" and "The Land of Oz." Many reviewers deemed the film to be comparatively unimaginative, but even more than that, too scary for the younger crowd (didn’t those critics remember the flying monkeys and wicked witch in director Victor Fleming’s classic film?). 

Now comes the PG-rated Oz the Great and Powerful from director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man). There’s no Dorothy or Toto in this prequel to Wizard that reveals the titular character’s back story. It’s a colorful, visually arresting film that has its share of inventive moments but could have used a bit more story development to justify its two-hour-ten-minute running time.

In a throwback to the original Wizard, Raimi’s Oz opens in glorious black-and-white, in standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Oscar Diggs (James Franco, 127 Hours) is a traveling magician in 1905 Kansas, a self-described conman who wows audiences with rigged tricks. Helped by his faithful assistant (Zach Braff, Liberal Arts), he looks down on those who pay to see his show, but during moments of self-reflection, he acknowledges he could be a better man.

"I’m many things, but a good man is not one of them," Oscar says. But goodness isn’t really what Oscar aspires to: He wants to be great.

After Oscar’s shenanigans earn the wrath of other traveling troupe members, he hitches a ride on a hot-air balloon and winds up flying straight into a tornado. Faced with imminent death, the conman quickly sobers up. Looking heavenward, he cries, "I don’t want to die! Get me out of here and I can do great things! I promise I can change!"

Delivered from what seemed to be his certain death, Oscar lands in the Land of Oz. As in The Wizard of Oz, the change in locale comes with a transition from black-and-white to eye-popping, hyper-realistic color, along with a shift to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. If that isn't enough to engage viewers' attention, Oscar’s trip down a waterfall should do the trick. It’s a special-effects driven diversion that offers nothing more than momentary thrills, but to the film’s credit, the sequence delivers in spades the roller-coaster thrills it aims to provide.

Mistaken for a prophesied wizard, Oscar is redubbed "Oz" and promised he can inherit the kingdom’s vast riches... but only if he defeats the Wicked Witch. He sets off for the Emerald City with a few companions: a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff); Theodora (Mila Kunis, Black Swan), a witch who warns Oscar about her evil sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, The Lovely Bones); and a china doll (voiced by Joey King, Ramona and Beezus). Oscar rescued the doll after her village was attacked by the Wicked Witch’s minions (flying baboons here, not the flying monkeys of the original).

With the help of Glinda (a "good witch," played very well, as always, by Michelle Williams, Shutter Island), Oz learns to become who the residents of the land think he is: a great man, not just a good man, and certainly not the conman he was back in Kansas. Doubting that he can live up to the hope people have placed in him, Oz is told, "If you can make them believe, then you’re wizard enough."

Thing is, once the setup's in place, the story doesn’t have much more to offer. The group’s drawn-out journey to the Emerald City feels too often like it’s passing time until the final confrontation between Oz and the Wicked Witch.

Still, the movie's themes are worth pondering. Although the premise about how we achieve goodness is contrary to what the Gospel tells us about our inability to justify ourselves, the idea that we must see ourselves as we truly are before we can pursue the necessary remedy is admirable. Also, the film packages that idea in a visually splendid parcel, with moments of wonder and delight that make an impression. However, caution is in order for younger viewers, who may be frightened by some of the film’s more intense moments (a character’s transformation into the Wicked Witch, although shown in shadow, is vivid, and the witch’s minions are fearsome). Conversely, the Wizard’s transformation from selfish to selfless is positive, even if his views of "goodness within" don’t stand up to biblical scrutiny.

So Oz the Great and Powerful doesn’t work as theology, but it is effective as cinema. If it doesn’t rise to the level of The Wizard of Oz, it does that classic film no shame, and it suggests that moments of movie magic can still exist in big-budget, special-effects-driven cinema. You might not be talking about Oz the Great and Powerful 70 years from now the way we still reminisce about The Wizard of Oz, but neither is the new film an experience you'll instantly forget.

CAUTIONS

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Drinking from a flask
  • Sex/Nudity: Some kissing
  • Violence/Crime: Forest vines attack Oz and his friends; a witch hunt; voices cry out, "You’ll die!;" a woman smashes a mirror; flying baboons menace the main characters; a fireball hits Oz; a guard is struck on the head three times
  • Religion/Morals: Oscar leads a carnival show in which he claims to free a troubled woman’s spirit; a girl in a wheelchair believes in him and asks him to heal her; he looks heavenward several times and cries out—without using the name “God”—“I don’t want to die!” “I promise I can change!” and after not dying, “You won’t regret this!” and “Thank you!”; the great king of Oz has prophesied a savior of Oz; a character says a witch’s minions have been sent to kill Oz; witches are central characters, with some described as good and some as wicked; one witch says to another, “Deep down you are wicked;” lies are said to be stepping stones on the road to greatness; a character’s wickedness is said to be not her own doing, and she is offered the possibility of finding goodness within herself later; greatness is contrasted with goodness

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: March 8, 2013

CrosswalkMovies.com: Oz the Great and Powerful from crosswalkmovies on GodTube.