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James Franco and Mila Kunis star in "Oz The Great and Powerful."
James Franco and Mila Kunis star in "Oz The Great and Powerful."

Prequel to "Oz" a charming trip back down the yellow brick road

Let’s get this out of the way now: "Oz The Great and Powerful" is not "The Wizard of Oz." It never will be, and it never could be.

The classic Judy Garland fantasy tale was the first taste of cinema for many viewers, introducing their eyes and imaginations to the magical worlds, big emotions, colorful characters and sinister villains that only film can create. Asking audiences to have the same sense of cynicism-free wonder they had back when they were kids – before they saw hundreds of special effects-driven blockbusters every other week – is near impossible.

Obviously, this is the gaping, self-imposed pothole "Oz The Great and Powerful" made for itself when it decided to revisit the iconic dream universe, but director Sam Raimi’s charmingly imaginative prequel nicely avoids tripping on its way down the yellow brick road.

After a slick 3-D black-and-white credit sequence, we meet our Oz: Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a tricky pompous flirt of a magician working for a travelling circus. He has aspirations for greatness, but things don’t look good when he gets caught in a raging twister that will send his high hopes – and his hot air balloon – crashing back down to Earth.

As with the original, the tornado has mercy on our protagonist and sends him to the magical world of Oz, complete with Emerald City, yellow brick road and sleep-inducing poppy fields. The locals – including the smitten Theodora (a miscast Mila Kunis), a member of Oz’s trio of witches – assume Oscar is a powerful wizard and pepper him with riches.

Before he takes his place as ruler, however, he must join with Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams, sweetly enchanting) and the innocent people of Oz to defeat the scheming Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who wants the throne for herself.

"Oz" tells a fairly standard hero’s tale about believing in oneself, but it’s in the execution where the film thrives. Much like its famed predecessor, the film starts in black and white and crammed into the classic 4:3 aspect – "box" – ratio, but then adds color and expands out to fill the frame when the audience arrives in Oz. It’s an old trick but one that’s still effective at making the world seem bigger and brighter.

As you’d expect, the visuals only get more imaginative and impressive once the audience gets dropped into the fantastical world. Unique creatures – including adorably vicious water fairies and bright-eyed tree monsters that look like vines sprouting an intimidating set of chompers – fill the land, which features memorable locales both old and new. The most interesting of them all is a village made of porcelain, where Oscar finds a fragile but chirpy sidekick (voiced with the ideal amount of cute spunkiness by Joey King).

It’s colorful, inventive and though it requires a great deal of computer effects, Raimi shoots his rich variety of worlds with warmth and emotion.

At first glance, the big budget kids movie looks like another big step away from the director’s horror origins, but the film still clearly carries Raimi’s signature, much to its advantage. Some of his touches are obvious, such as a few well-placed bizarro shots and angles, some cute callbacks to classic horror tropes and visuals, and a cameo appearance from a certain large chinned "Evil Dead" star.

Even the tone feels like a Raimi project. There’s the director’s sense of humor, a strange, anarchic blend that somehow combines the dark and morbid with campy, cartoony silliness.

Raimi also has an affinity for emotional hokum – see the giant American flags and tributes to New York City’s citizens in the "Spider-Man" films – that feels satisfyingly earnest and tonally on the mark. Elements of the story and dialogue, such as a young girl’s pleas for Oscar to fix her legs near in the magician’s circus show, could’ve been mawkish but instead have a heart.

Some credit should also go to the script, written by David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner, which hits all sorts of clever and emotional notes while pleasantly chugging along its 130 minute running time. They also throw in some amusing callbacks and references, including the reality reflected in fantasy story structure and a nice tribute to cinema at the film’s climax, without ever feeling forced.

Raimi is the perfect fit to recapture the untainted sentimentality of classic cinema while also bringing a bit of his own directorial and comedic bite to the proceedings. If anything, "Oz The Great and Powerful" could stand to let him off the leash a bit more and give the project a bit more bite.

Unlike the original (and certainly unlike "Return to Oz"), there’s not much scariness to go with the sweetness. In fact, when the Wicked Witch of the West finally shows up, she’s kind of a disappointment. The actress playing her sounds angst-ridden and raspy rather than wicked and evil. Even her design isn’t right; her eyes and face are too rounded and kind. This is not the witch who can cause nightmares even 75 years later.

Franco’s lead performance leaves a little to be desired as well. It’s not a bad performance – as the film goes along, he actually becomes fun and entertaining – but he’s always James Franco. You never feel like he could charm, mesmerize and convince the residents of Oz of his power, much less a crowd of magic fans in Kansas.

Thankfully, Raimi’s direction makes sure the project doesn’t feel Disney-fied into blandness and loaded with over-caffeinated attempts at wonder (minus a brief waterfall sequence near the beginning that feels more like a theme park ride than part of the film, but it’s still a cool scene). Instead, it’s packed with genuine charm and entertainment.

There’s no place like the original "Wizard of Oz," but Raimi’s creative new vision is certainly still worth a visit. 


TosaJim | March 9, 2013 at 1:13 p.m. (report)

You have to remember that this is how the Wizard of Oz came about....Dorothy and the rest came later.....If you want to get really bummed the books...very dark.

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