Movie review: Oz The Great and Powerful

05:00 AM, Mar 08, 2013

James Franco, as Oz, left, and the character Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, in 'Oz the Great and Powerful.' (The Associated Press)/

Written By Bill Goodykoontz | Gannett Chief Film Critic

The biggest, and inevitable, problem with Oz the Great and Powerful is that there was already this other Oz movie that was pretty good.

So you’ve got to give director Sam Raimi points for courage for not shying away from a cultural landmark. No Cowardly Lion, he.

Of course, references like that don’t really apply here. Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, telling us how the wizard landed (literally) in a strange land with flying monkeys and wicked witches and whatnot. It will be years before Dorothy and her friends make their own, more memorable journey along the Yellow Brick Road.

This trip isn’t so notable. It’s not bad. Some bits are enjoyable. But ultimately, other than some genuinely impressive visuals, it never makes a compelling enough case to justify its existence.

The story begins in Kansas in 1905 (and, like the first part of The Wizard of Oz, it begins in black-and-white). An oily carnival magician named Oscar (James Franco) is busily fleecing a crowd and seducing women. Note to Oscar: Leave the strongman’s wife alone. Chased into a hot-air balloon, Oscar escapes, only to be sucked into a twister (sound familiar?) that lands him in Oz, which conveniently happens to be his nickname.

Now the film shifts to color. But not just any color. The hues are vibrant and rich, stunningly so, and in 3D they are also textured. Much like in Avatar, it’s almost too much to take in at first.

The first person Oz meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), who is beautiful and kind and, to his surprise, a witch. She’s elated to see Oz (the man) because she believes him to be the wizard, fulfilling a prophecy that he will save Oz (the place) from the wicked witch. She dreams of the two of them ruling Oz as king and queen, happily ever after.

But there’s the matter of the wicked witch to be dealt with. Once at the castle in Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who serves as the advisor to the king. She is not as convinced as her sister that Oz is the genuine item.

Then there is a third sister and witch, Glenda (Michelle Williams), who bears a striking resemblance to Annie, a woman Oz has a relationship with in Kansas who visited him at the carnival to tell him a man had proposed to her (and, clearly, to try to get him to talk her out of it).

There is indeed a wicked witch among them. Figuring out who isn’t particularly difficult, but there is another surprise in store that’s pretty satisfying (though I’m a sucker for origin stories). But if Oz is not who everyone thinks he is, and he isn’t, how can he free the people from the wicked witch’s reign of terror?

You’ve just got to believe. That’s the theme here, which we know because Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire beat us over the head with it. No, he may not be the wizard everyone expected, Oz says at one point, but he may be the wizard they need. Variations on this are also repeated several times, which not only gets old but adds to the two-hours-plus running time.

Oz will have to hit the road to save Oz. The yellow brick road, naturally. He’s accompanied by a loyal flying monkey (voice of Zach Braff) and a china doll (voice of Joey King). He will rely on his skills as a magician as much or more than his burgeoning moral clarity.

A thing to remember about Oz, though: In The Wizard of Oz he’s a fraud exposed by Dorothy, not a hero. That’s not meant to give anything away (and it doesn’t), but to explain some of his motives, and to point out the difficulty of shaping the story around him.

We’re off to see the wizard, Dorothy once famously sang. It doesn’t dishonor the original, but when it comes to Oz the Great and Powerful, that same enthusiasm won’t apply.