OzcoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2013, 130 min., B&W and Color
Rated PG for sequences of action, scary images and brief mild language
Aspect ratio:  1.33:1 (beginning), 2.40:1 (remainder)
Featured soundtrack: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy

It seemed almost sacrilegious to mess with a classic like The Wizard of Oz, so my family was a little apprehensive to watch Disney’s prequel that explained how the Wizard actually came to Oz. But it didn’t take long before everyone was caught up in the fantasy. Disney spent more than $200 million on this special effects film, and while the pacing and the visuals captivate, it’s really James Franco’s performance as the Wizard and an abundance of allusions to the 1939 classic that make it fun.

Franco really nails his character, a small-time two-timing traveling magician who comes to the Land of Oz via a hot air balloon propelled by a Kansas twister. In apparent tribute to the original film, director Sam Raimi opts to withhold color until Oscar (whose stage name is Oz) comes to that fantasy world. Purists will wonder, though, why he didn’t go with sepia over black and white for the Kansas sequences, to match the original, and anyone with a smaller television will wonder why he decided to tell the Kansas part of the story using a 1.33:1 ratio—smaller than that, actually, since the small square picture is bordered on all four sides by black bars.

It can become annoying, but as when the plot sags just a bit in the second act, it’s all those connections to the original movie or to elements of L. Frank Baum’s books that make you smile and help to pick up the slack. China Doll never made it into the movie, but she’s here in the prequel, and it gives Raimi another chance to play with the dual roles that we saw in the 1939 film. Joey King, who appears as a girl in a wheelchair in the first part of the movie, gives voice to China Doll, whose legs have been broken. Michelle Williams is both Annie, the magician’s former girlfriend who got tired of waiting for a real relationship, and Glinda, the good witch. And Zach Braff is Frank, the magician’s behind-the-scenes assistant, as well as Finley, the flying monkey who pledges a lifetime of service to Oz’s newcomer. Like Franco, he seems to really have a good time, and that translates into onscreen energy. 

In Oz the Great and Powerful, Franco’s character is mistaken for a great wizard prophesied to save the people from evil, and the main narrative revolves around Oz’s interactions with three witches as he tries to rise to the occasion. Mila Kunis attempts to unleash her inner Black Swan but finds it’s not easy being green. There are times when you find her convincing as an early version of the broom-riding “I’ll get you, My Pretty!” witch from the original film, but times when the screenplay seems to sabotage her. Same with Rachel Weisz’s character Evanora, the third witch trying to gain control of their dead father’s kingdom.

OzscreenOf course there’s a yellow brick road that Oz has to follow to get to the Emerald City, but the plot feels a bit murky at times. I’m not sure that everything about the relationship between the three witches that Oz encounters is clear—or with the prophecy that thrusts him into the role of a Great Wizard who will save Oz from evil—but Oz the Great and Powerful is really a slam-bang family film whose special effects, breakneck pacing, and Wizard of Oz allusions help you look past the details. My family enjoyed it more than Disney’s live-action sequel of Alice in Wonderland that Tim Burton directed.

Oz, which clocks in at 130 minutes, is rated PG for sequences of action, scary images, and brief mild language, but I’d have to say that it’s no scarier than the original film. What it is, though, is more startling. There’s a huge decibel gap between the dialogue level and the special effects action that boom like cannons and can frighten little ones more than what they’re seeing onscreen. The only cure for that is to keep adjusting the volume up or down.

We’re going to Disney World again this year, and as we watched my kids were talking about scenes that could be incorporated into an Oz ride if Disney wanted to go that route, and there are a bunch—probably because the film was made in 3D, and even the 2D Blu-ray offers more coming-at-you elements and greater depth than the typical HD movie.