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The name “goody two shoes,” is never intended as a compliment. “Bad boys” are considered fun and even attractive, while the very “good man” is often patronized as boring or common. Particularly on the big screen, it is increasingly rare to see a truly good hero, since characters are generally considered more complex and interesting if they are tainted with a little bad. This Hollywood-fueled idea has found its way even into children’s films, which features “heroes” that are just as ethically confused as their more grownup movie counterparts.
Although Oz the Great and Powerful may at first appear guilty of this same fault, presenting a “hero” who is decidedly far from good for most of the film, Great and Powerful ultimately flips this new stereotype on its head—proving that the now common anti-hero is nowhere near as great or powerful as a hero who learns how to do good. If not for the purposeless inclusion of two swear words and a frightful level of scariness, this prequel to the iconic film, The Wizard of Oz, would be the movie parents have been waiting to have appear in the theater during this dry winter for family fare.
With those faults and humanistic, moralistic themes that are positive but risk cutting God out of the picture, parents should approach Great and Powerful with caution and readiness to help kids see the truth beyond the tricks.
A small-time magician known as Oz admittedly does not want to be a “good man.” The world is full of such men who Oz views as necessary, but pitiful and insignificant in the long run. Oz wants to be a “great” man, someone like Thomas Alva Edison—a man who does fantastic things that astound and change the world. It’s hard to achieve such greatness when Oz is stuck in a traveling circus, limited by provincial audiences and incompetent assistants.
With his goal for greatness as his single focus, Oz employs every kind of trickery that he believes will further his interests. Deception and selfishness become the defining characteristics of Oz’s life. He cons and lies his way into the affections of women he then casts off while he maximizes his earnings by cheating assistants out of their share.
When a near death experience turns into a sudden trip to the unknown Land of Oz, Oz the man feels as though he has awakened in a dream. The world is surreal and amazing, but beyond that is the fact that Oz is seen by the people who live there as a great wizard who has come to fulfill a prophecy and defeat the Wicked Witch who holds the people in fear. With the promise of riches untold and a kingdom of his own, Oz can hardly disillusion his adoring public. He knew he was destined for greatness, and now he has it.
There always seems to be a wet blanket on Oz’s parties, and this one comes in the form of a little effort required on his part. He has to defeat the Wicked Witch before he can claim the throne and accompanying wealth. [MILD SPOILER WARNING] That task, already challenging to someone who does not really have a wizard’s powers, proves to be even more complicated than Oz expects when it turns out that the good people are bad and the bad people are good.
Aided by companions he doesn’t want and slowed by troubles he cannot avoid, Oz pushes on for the sake of his own greed. But his adventure puts him on a path to discover that real greatness and power come from the one thing he has run from all his life—becoming good.
Following a dismal series of recent fairytale-type retellings (Snow White has been sullied beyond recognition), Great and Powerful is like a breath of much-needed oxygen worth breathing. The content is sadly not as safe as it should be, but the film still seems as innocent as the original Snow White by comparison with the sex-saturated, violent, morally ambiguous, and evil-glorifying fare that has become the norm of late.
Other than the low-cut dresses that the “witches,” both good and bad, wear in Oz, there is almost no sexual content to cause concern. Oz is a bit of a womanizer, but his prize for such nefarious behavior is, at least on screen, confined to getting to dance with and kiss a few ladies. Importantly, these scenes are only included as crucial elements to the development of Oz and other characters.
A dance and a kiss is enough to break these ladies’ hearts, and Oz eventually encounters severe consequences for his flippancy with women. Through Oz’s poor treatment of casual fling interests versus his more restrained treatment of the woman he truly loves, Great and Powerful also demonstrates a vital lesson for girls and young women, showing that men who truly love them will treat them with respect, both physically and emotionally.
Such respect is not something that Oz generally shows to people unless he wants something from them. As he admits himself at one point, he never gives his “friendship” to anyone. Viewers get to, sometimes painfully, watch that attitude in action, as Oz enjoys being served by others a little too much and rarely returns the favor.
Glimpses of heroism or, as this film would have it, a “good heart,” do show up in brief moments before Oz undergoes a real change. When he encounters someone in desperate need or a truly pitiable condition, for example, his compassion is roused and he does what he can to help. Whenever any of his companions are in real danger, Oz instinctively puts them first and risks himself to protect them. That is, when he does not have time to think things through first. Given time, Oz’s greed and selfishness tend to get the upper hand.
In Great and Powerful, however, Oz is not the typical anti-hero (one viewers are supposed to love, bad side and all), but rather a man who needs to learn to be a hero as the film progresses. His dishonorable character is intended for a positive purpose, allowing viewers to learn the lessons of this tale more powerfully and along with Oz, as he grows into someone worthy of being called a hero. These positive messages will not be missed, since Great and Powerful makes them extremely clear, announcing in children’s film style the moral that selfishness, greed, and deceit are evil and lead only to pain, whereas having a good heart is the source of true, restorative power.
This theme of goodness, while laudable in most respects, is also where Great and Powerful loses some of its magic. The ultimate message of this film is not just good triumphing over evil, but the idea that people must find the good within themselves in order to conquer evil. Thus, despite a moment when Oz seems to be calling out to God when he thinks he is going to die, the movie falls into the trap of giving power to some innate goodness that supposedly lives in the hearts of “good” people.
These “good” people in the Land of Oz are empowered by a twist on the “just believe” slogan of our day, as Oz encourages them to “believe” and “have faith in each other.” Such doctrine flies in the face of the reality that all humans are actually sinful and have no aptitude for good whatsoever apart from God.
For Christian audiences that are firmly rooted in this biblical truth (kids should be guided here), the theme of human goodness will likely be harmless, since it still demonstrates a partial truth (that true good is indeed great and powerful). But for the secular public, this theme may lead only to better outward behavior, which will no doubt improve society, but will probably also lead people further away from God. The neat flip that the film achieves, then, when it closes with the idea that being “good” is better than “great,” is uplifting, but incomplete.
A similar statement could be made to summarize the rest of the film’s content. Great and Powerful succeeds at being family friendly better than many blockbuster projects, but a few rather ludicrous mistakes still manage to slip in. There was a time when no filmmaker would even think of including obscenities in a children’s film, since such an idea is not even logical. Great and Powerful, however, throws in two uses of “d--n.” At least the filmmakers have the good sense to avoid any profanities, notably using “gosh” in place of the Lord’s name. The movie is also blissfully devoid of any crude humor and has very little slapstick—rare features indeed for a contemporary kids’ flick.
Yet another misjudgment revealed in Great and Powerful is the level of frightening images and material that will be too problematic for very young or sensitive viewers. Live action for such fantasy films used to mean a decrease in realism, but with the capabilities of modern filmmaking, foregoing animation instead means the potential for more frightful intensity and authenticity than many parents will want their children to see. It is far easier for a child to forget the face of an animated villain than the contorted physique of a seemingly “real” wicked witch or the electric shock torture (though in brief, not very intense scenes) she inflicts on the purist character in the film.
In addition, parents may have some misgivings with the idea of witches and wizards in the first place. In this case, the presence of witches and wizards serves only as a foil to address the issues of good versus evil and the source of power (which is, here, goodness). Nevertheless, though the only “wizard” in this story has no magical powers, the witches do possess and wield such powers throughout the movie. Viewed in the context of a fantasy, imaginary story, such content should not be harmful, as long as children understand that these elements are as fictional as the rest of the movie.
A firm grasp on the concept of pretend is also necessary in an early scene in which Oz performs a magic trick that involves summoning the spirit of a deceased person. Viewers of the movie are made well aware that Oz’s little show is fake, as they get a behind-the-scenes look at the setup for the magic trick and the mistakes that his assistants make, but the idea of summoning a spirit is still a dangerous and disturbing “trick” to be playing at.
Indeed, Oz encounters immediate consequences for toying with powers he does not understand when the gullible audience subsequently believes that, with such great powers, Oz should be able to make a crippled girl walk. With this negative result to Oz’s spirit-summoning, one could argue that the story itself makes the point that Oz should not be trying to call spirits, act or no act.
Like the magic of the wizard and witches in the film, some of it real and some poor imitations that fall short, the magic of Disney also intermittently impresses and disappoints in the movie’s production quality. Great and Powerful is amazingly colorful, bursting with magnificent brightness and richly saturated images from the time Oz travels from his black and white world of Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz. Creative concepts of places such as the Emerald Castle, a village of China Dolls, and the hidden castle of Glinda the Good are stunning examples of imagination and creativity.
China Girl, a youngster Oz rescues, is the most impressive use of the film’s CGI, demonstrating the blissful advantage modern filmmakers have when bringing such feats of imagination to life. On the other hand, Oz’s other companion is a flying monkey named Finley, who illustrates the weaknesses in this production. Finley’s animation comes up far short of making him look actually real—a failing that seems inexcusable with this film’s budget and the present age of CGI technology.
The rest of the film has similar, surprising shortcomings. Among them is the screenplay, which flashes some clever moments, but ends up pulling nothing interesting out of the hat when it comes to the unoriginal dialogue that falls flat when humor is attempted, as well as a few equally predictable plot turns (particularly in the rising action and climax).
Unfortunately, the actors are unable to fully overcome the script’s shortcomings through their performances. The bulk of the film rests on James Franco’s shoulders, as the Wizard of Oz hopeful. His turn as Oz is exactly what one would expect from most of Franco’s career thus far—he is competent and nice to look at, but unremarkable.
In contrast, Rachel Weisz brings her trademark authenticity to the role of the evil villainess Evanora. Given nothing original in the script, few actors would be able to play this character as anything but a one-dimensional cliché, but Weisz makes Evanora believably real despite the on-paper predictability. Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis also do well handling their parts, Kunis having an advantage with the most developed character of the film. Williams shows impressive chops, however, with her turn as the very good Glinda, who might be dull if not for Williams’ emotional accessibility in the role.
Yet, as viewers learn from this film, a good heart and intentions, revealed in Great and Powerful’s core positive message, is better than what the world considers greatness. That explanation might excuse the lack of production perfection, but would not quite cover the obscenities and intense scariness included in this children’s movie.
Parents will need to be discerning to determine if their kids will learn where true greatness and power comes from by watching this film, or if they will instead be taken in by some bad magic. After all, Dorothy could tell you that just following the yellow brick road may be fun, but it is never as safe as it appears.
Check out these movies instead:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walt Disney, 2005)
The Wonderful Wizard of Ha’s (Veggie Tales, Big Idea, 2007)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!