Film Review — Oz the Great and Powerful

The mythology of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has become somewhat of a muddle in the 113 years since L. Frank Baum's original novel was published in 1900. From the critically acclaimed hit of 1939's The Wizard of Oz film starring Judy Garland, to the recent success of the Broadway musical Wicked, the land of Oz continues to be a source of great fascination today.

Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful (directed by Sam Raimi) takes audiences back to the lush and vibrant land of Oz. The film is based on Baum's original novel, and as well paying homage to the 1939 film adaptation, functioning as a loose prequel to the classic from MGM Studios.

Synopsis

The basic plot of Oz the Great and Powerful follows the adventures of Oscar Diggs, aka the Wizard (played by James Franco) as he is catapulted from his life as a second-rate circus magician to the Land of Oz, a strange and colourful new world that has apparently been waiting for a wizard to free it from the clutches of a wicked witch, as foretold by an ancient prophecy—and the wizard is believed to be him.

After a brief stop in the Emereld City, Oscar, who adopts his stage name of Oz, journeys to destroy the wicked witch, only to discover he has been played for a fool and has been working for the wicked witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her unsuspecting younger sister Theodora (Mila Kunis) the entire time. Upon discovering that Glinda (Michelle Williams) is indeed the good witch, Oz reluctantly but eventually comes up with a clever plan to beat the wicked witches and save Oz from their tyranny. Having no real magical powers himself, he must rely on his skills of cunning to beat the much more powerful witch sisters.

Disclaimers

There are only very mild language concerns in this film, and no real overt sexual content to speak of, although the early scenes do seem to imply that Oz has "a way with the ladies." And aside from a few frightening scenes (Mila Kunis' transformation into the green-skinned Wicked Witch, and some particularly fearsome flying monkeys), Oz the Great and Powerful is a film that shouldn't bother most parents in terms of content.

However, we should also be sensitive to the fact that the film deals with magic and witchcraft on a fairly prominent level, though that shouldn't be news to anyone even marginally familiar with the mythos of Oz. It is about a wizard, after all. Still, if the treatment of mystical elements is something that raises a red flag for you and your family, Oz the Great and Powerful may not be the film for you.

Technical notes

Oz scholars will be well aware that Baum drew a fair amount of influence from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. And upon first glance, moviegoers may be reminded of Tim Burton's Alice adaptation from 2010, a film featuring a similar scheme of vibrant, colourful settings, a quirky hodgepodge of eccentric characters, and a musical score from Danny Elfman.

And in that regard, Oz the Great and Powerful might seem like a bit of a re-hash from the not-so-distant past, especially with both films coming from Walt Disney Studios. While it likely won't be regarded in years to come with the same regard as its 1939 counterpart, director Sam Raimi delivers a decent story backed up by some tremendous visuals, which makes for an entertaining, if not all that memorable, experience.

Deeper meanings and greater gleanings

Oscar Diggs is believed to be the great and powerful wizard of Oz, the promised one who would free the land from the clutches of villainy as foretold by the prophecies. As such, the supporting cast is dumbfounded at the sight of the greedy, cowardly, bumbling, and utterly self-interested small-time magician. Yet by film's end, Oz succeeds in doing all of the things expected in the ancient promises, albeit in a manner entirely unexpected.

Stories of prophecy being fulfilled by an unconventional saviour are familiar territory for Christian audiences, though it would be a serious misstep to jump to the "Oz equals Jesus" conclusion. Christ fulfills messianic prophecy through unexpected means, coming as a tender infant instead of a mighty king; something that Israel was likely expecting in a more literal sense. In a roughly similar way, Oz succeeds in freeing the land bearing his name through means other than brute force.

However, the comparison is a shaky one. Though Jesus' deliverance comes through an unforeseen fashion, his motivations and interests are never in question—Jesus is wholly selfless whereas Oz is morally suspect. Despite the ultimate good that comes about as a result of Oz's actions, he's still ultimately a fake—something that fails to live up to our Christian expectations of a saviour.

Perhaps a more fitting conclusion to draw from the questionable 'wizard' of Oz is this: despite all of our selfishness and frequent hesitations to do what we know to be the right thing, God is still fully capable of using our shortcomings to achieve His good purposes. And despite our initially selfish reasons for doing something, we always have the potential to one day see the good in all things and, at that point, come to realize that good things are worth doing for their own sake.

Some might say this is the narrative of discipleship, that tricky, easily strayed-from path that we all continue to walk as Christians.

All in all, Oz the Great and Powerful is a decently entertaining mix of audio and visuals, and can be enjoyed by most if not all members of the family. If nothing else, it serves as a decent reminder that good things can indeed come from unexpected places, and regardless of where we've been, we're always able to be something better.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.