James Franco in 'Oz the Great and Powerful' (Photo: Walt Disney Pictures)
There is a very simple litmus test to know if your child can comfortably handle "Oz the Great and Powerful": were they afraid of "The Wizard of Oz?" If not, take them to the new Disney movie because it is less scary than the 1939 original.
I first saw that movie on TV when I was 8 -- I was both terrified and unable to look away, and then it wasn't on TV for another year. My daughter watched it at 6 and, then, thanks to the wonders of the DVD revolution, she watched it on an endless loop, dulling the edges of the scary bits.
Six is a little young to watch either "Oz." I would hold out for 8 or 9, with a parent's hand on call for the airborne baboons and Wicked Witch.
How Frightening Is Our Wizard Walk Through "Oz the Great and Powerful?"
A critical plot shift makes this prequel less scary than the original: the central character is a grown man -- a not so nice one at that. He's no pigtailed, singing, skipping Dorothy with Toto at her side and a personality as open as the Kansas plains. And, so, as Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) gets sucked up by a twister in a hot-air balloon and tossed to the witches-plagued Oz, children won't identify with him as much as they did with Dorothy -- or the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow or the Tin Man. Those characters may all have had their shortcomings -- courage, heart or brains -- but none was as shifty as this sideshow magician Oscar who the Oz folk mistake for the Wizard of prophecy.
It's a Bit of an Amusement Park Ride
When the twister sweeps up Oscar in his filched hot-air balloon and sends him in a big whoosh to the candy-colored Land of Oz, the character's fright seems a bit comical. (And a bit deserved, considering how dishonest he'd been back in Kansas.) The whole sequence feels like a preparation for a new Disneyland attraction, like a roller-coaster version of "Pirates of the Caribbean." Yes, for a preschooler or a 6- or 7-year-old this is scary stuff, but most children will see this as a thrill ride, rather than mortal danger. And it lacks that image of the mean Toto-napper Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) riding her bike across the grey skies with her threatening theme music as she transforms gradually into the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, the older Wicked Witch is scarier because she carries the seeds of the lady that was mean to Dorothy without any supernatural abilities.
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
The scene that always sent me running from the TV was that of the Cowardly Lion (my favorite) running down the long hall and leaping out a window because of his fearful anticipation of the overbearing, all-powerful Wizard of Oz. In the new movie, those scenes in which the Wizard appears as a big bodiless head are completely explained. It's like going to see Siegfried and Roy and knowing the tricks. So that when the climactic scene comes, and the Wizard literally faces down his witchy foes, we know how he accomplishes the illusion. We're very aware of the mortal man behind the curtain -- the camera keeps cutting to him sweating the scam. Hence, it's not nearly as scary.
We're Afraid of the Big, Bad Witches
Still, there's no avoiding that Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her sister-rival Theodora (Mila Kunis) are enjoying a reign of terror in the Emerald City. They thrive off scaring little children -- or at least Munchkins. Evanora horrifies in a more sophisticated way -- she's devious and delights in evil. When she pulls out her green lightning bolts and targets on Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) it's scary, similar to the Emperor blasting Luke in "Return of the Jedi." Still, it's difficult to envision her or her green-tinged little sister haunting children's dreams in the way that Margaret Hamilton haunted mine. As for Evanora's fanged, flying baboon minions, they seem so obviously computer-generated that they generate all the frights of the phantoms that haunt Scooby-Doo cartoons.
Children Are This Fantasy's Audience
I wager that kids will be less fussy and comparative than their parents when watching "Oz the Great and Powerful," which is actually very entertaining, and full of images of wonder and magic enhanced by 3-D. And the addition of the spunky China Girl, a broken porcelain figure that Oz repairs and befriends, gives kids a positive character with which to identify in the absence of the beloved Dorothy Gale and her dog Toto. Following the pattern of Disney's 2010 revamp of "Alice in Wonderland," which met critical resistance but made over a $1 billion globally, most children will find "Oz the Great and Powerful" a spellbinding spectacular.
Watch the theatrical trailer for 'Oz the Great and Powerful':