James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful."
Oz the Great and Powerful
The "sound-alike" has long been a practice of those looking to borrow the cachet of a piece of music by producing a knock-off rather than paying royalties for the real deal. Well, Disney has a shiny new "Oz" movie that's a "look-alike" of Warner property "The Wizard of Oz," but shhh, Disney doesn't want to get sued.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" comes billed as based on the works of L. Frank Baum, therefore omitting ruby slippers and tweaking just-so the designs created for the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." But the effect is a lot like the movie as well-made Halloween costume: As it plays dress-up, you immediately recognize what it "is." The effect is underlined by director Sam Raimi staging and shooting the opening scenes, set in 1905 Kansas, in the visual style of the 1939 movie: black-and-white "Academy" ratio that expands to vintage Technicolor-hued color widescreen once the movie arrives in Oz.
This prequel concerns the story of how the Wizard installed himself as "the man behind the curtain" in the Emerald City. James Franco plays roguish carnival magician Oscar Diggs (aka "Oz"), whose hot-air balloon gets whipped by a tornado into the magical land of Oz. There he meets a fetching witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that he must be the wizard foretold in prophecy to inherit the Emerald City throne.
Theodora takes Oz to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who regards him with suspicion but sends him on a mission to kill witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and earn his position of power and fortune. In story terms, this sort of connect-the-dots prequel is basically a dead end, warned not to stray from its yellow-brick road and doomed to a foregone conclusion.
The script by Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rabbit Hole") gets to sort out the witch politics, but mostly settles for revisiting every trope of the original story rather than trying to break narrative or thematic ground. There's no idea here that wasn't expressed more efficiently in the 1939 film.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" gets saved from the junk heap by Franco and especially by director Sam Raimi, who happily treats the enterprise as a sandbox. Like Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese before him, Raimi finds his first foray into 3D creatively envigorating, at least in visual terms. His comical in-your-face style is entirely suited to 3D, and the premium at the box office is worth it to see what this cinematic craftsman does with it.
Meanwhile, Franco's smiley mischief keeps the picture buoyant (is that an extra glint in the local boy's eye when he name-checks Thomas Alva Edison as "the wizard of Menlo Park"?), as do two appealingly precocious CGI characters with whom he convincingly acts: China Girl (voiced by Joey King and based on Baum's China Princess) and flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff). The leading ladies do their best, but their characters are both overly familiar and thinly, unconvincingly motivated.
A special-effects reel does not a movie make. OK, it didn't in 1939, but it sorta does now, sadly. At least Raimi's PG pastiche is highly skilled. His picture is a feast for the eyes of tasteful pictorial imagination, making spectacular use of state-of-the-art visual and aural effects. It's a bit difficult to stick with the story, especially in the draggy final leg, but when Raimi keeps the tone light, this "Oz" can make fun.
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Two hours, 10 minutes.
- Peter Canavese