Andy Bockelman: ‘Oz’ prequel has magic to spare
March 21, 2013
"Oz the Great and Powerful," rated PG
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Run time: 127 minutes
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams
Steamboat Springs — It takes courage to try to follow up the legacy of a classic movie.
Some might say you've got no brains to get in over your head like that, but a little heart is all you need. And in the case of a film like "Oz the Great and Powerful," having some modern-day technology up your sleeve never hurts.
In rural turn-of-the-century America, people need something to believe in, and con man Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is ready to take advantage of the small-minded and gullible. But no matter how much he tries to build himself up as master of the mystic arts as a magician in a circus troupe roaming the Midwest, he knows in his heart that he's nothing more than a two-bit hack.
When a powerhouse tornado sucks up him and his trusty hot air balloon, Oscar is just glad to be alive. However, when he sees where the twister has taken him — well, he gets the feeling he's no longer in Kansas.
This new land is unlike anything he's ever seen, from the otherworldly flora and fauna to the first person he meets upon landing, Theadora the Good Witch (Mila Kunis), who apparently has been waiting for him for ages. As luck would have it, he's come to another realm which not only bears the same handle as his stage name, but also has been anticipating the arrival of a wizard who, according to prophecy, will save the land of Oz from a wicked witch.
Oz the man is more interested in reaping the benefits of being such a hero than actually helping anyone in this newfound country, but upon meeting other witches of Oz, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), he comes to realize his choice of alliances could have a huge impact.
Franco trades in the hammy showmanship we've seen from the better known wizard for that of a swarthy swindler whose lack of a moral compass leads him to the strangest place he's ever known.
Williams is excellent as the sunny, kindhearted, tiara-wearing enchantress who believes Oscar has greatness in him despite his self-serving manner. Kunis, likewise, has a fine beauty about her as love-struck Theadora, strung along by Oscar in the illusion that the two of them have a future together only to have her heart broken quite horribly. Weisz is just as good but receives less attention as manipulative Evanora, who's taken up as ruler of the Emerald City and hangs out with a few too many flying simians to be trusted.
There are a few faces and voices we see and hear in the colorless purgatory of Kansas and its vivid, dreamlike counterpart, one of many nods to the 1939 masterpiece that still stands as the ultimate in family fantasy films, a reputation that has only grown leading up to its almost-75th anniversary. You'd expect director Sam Raimi to take one of two paths down the yellow brick road of prequel-dom: A. Cobble together a feature that's entirely in line with the movie that launched Judy Garland to superstardom but without such copyright-protected elements like the ruby slippers. Or B. Make it his own, like Disney's infamous 1985 attempt to create a sequel with the dark, disturbing "Return to Oz."
Naturally, wanting to please everyone, he goes with C. All of the above.
You can't fault Raimi for wanting to take on such a high-profile project, and with the kind of sweeping camera angles he gave us in the "Spider-Man" movies at least you know anything aerial is in good hands. Yes, when you have green screen, there's no need to fret about how the landscape of a place like Oz will look, and it definitely has a phenomenal visual appeal, enhanced by the kind of immersive 3-D that makes you forget you're watching and not living a movie.
Still, there are some shortcomings that hit some viewers like a bucket of water. The colorful appeal that is Oz is not unlike that of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," and Raimi has the same problem Burton does in taking a well-established story and focusing 80-percent on the look, 20-percent on the characters and all but ignoring the depth and intentions of the original source material. The allegorical nature of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" stories, particularly the allusions to the American economy, would strengthen this narrative, but apparently once you're over the rainbow on screen, there's no longer any need to read.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" might not be as thought-provoking as it ought to be, but it's still a fun fantasy for all ages. And if you're thinking you might wait to catch it on DVD, just remember: There's no place like the movie theater, there's no place like the movie theater, there's no place like the movie theater!
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.
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