Surprisingly engaging prequel to the classic tale of witches and a wizard
Your mindset regarding Oz the Great and Powerful is most likely shaped by your reaction to The Wizard of Oz, the film classic that was a staple on television for decades. Either you loved the original and were interested in exploring the wizard’s back-story, or you loved the original and were suspicious of any attempt to reboot a classic. Or perhaps you are a parent desperately seeking acceptable family entertainment in a barren movie landscape.
My expectations were less than enthusiastic so my reaction was a surprise — I liked it a lot more than I anticipated, even if James Franco in the title role seems more like a stoner than a clever conman.
Directed by Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful offers the same framing device as the original. The story starts in Kansas in black and white and the images come to vibrant, colorful life when it shifts to Oz. Oscar Diggs (Franco) is a small-time circus magician who seduces innocent farm girls with a line about his continued devotion to them, a line he seals with a music box.
He’s a shallow, self-centered jerk and when a twister swoops down and takes Oscar and his hot-air balloon up, up and away to Oz, he figures he has hit the jackpot. He is found by the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who tells him the land of Oz has been expecting a great wizard to come and save them and become king. It’s a pretty sweet gig and Oscar figures he can pull off yet another con.
However, it turns out that this land is really suffering from a serious case of sibling rivalry. Theodora’s bitter sister, the wicked witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) wants total control and in this version of Oz her flying monkeys have been upgraded to nasty flying baboons. She hates her good witch sister Glinda (Michelle Williams), and when Oscar realizes he is caught in the middle he has to choose sides — and make good use of his magic tricks in order to restore peace to the kingdom.
That’s the moment when the movie caught my attention and delivered unexpected pleasures, watching Oscar take responsibility for his actions, joining forces with the good people of Oz — the Munchkins, the tinkers (including terrific Bill Cobbs as the master tinker with serious building skills), the farmers, and seamstresses — and coming up with the ultimate con to take down a couple of powerful witches.
Oz the Great and Powerful ultimately blends together impressive special effects, a story about teamwork and the redemption of a man who finally strives for greatness into an effective family film. And although Franco is more convincing as a shallow conman than as the hero he becomes, it’s the ladies that rule Oz. Kunis and especially Weisz are delightfully convincing as evil witches with a capital “B,” and their antics provide the crackling energy in Oz.
Oz the Great and Powerful might not be a classic film likely to endure for more that 70 years, but it works in 2013 quite nicely.
Oz the Great and Powerful (3 Stars)
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