MRR Review: "Oz: The Great and Powerful"

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A prequel to L. Frank Baum's novel "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and the 1939 film adaptation, this 2013 3D fantasy adventure follows Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, as he's whisked away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz. At first he thinks he's hit the jackpot-fame and fortune are his for the taking.
3.5

MRR Review: "Oz: The Great and Powerful"

-- Rating: PG (mild language, scary images, action sequences)
Length: 130 minutes
Release date: March 8, 2013
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Genre: Family, Adventure, Fantasy

The problem with origin films is that they often try to force a connection with a beloved story by stringing together cheesy references and awkward character cameos. It's a formula for failure and an obvious issue for Sam Raimi in the making of "Oz the Great and Powerful," the 2013 prequel to the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." Disney's new "Oz" is visually stunning and takes several thematic risks that deserve some praise. Yet, parts of the plot suffer from trying to produce expected outcomes, often skewing the story in implausible directions.

Oscar's first entry into Oz is a gasp-worthy moment for all ages. Visual effects are what make this film soar, and Raimi makes a clever choice by opening the movie with a black-and-white sequence. When Oscar's battered balloon tumbles out of the storm, it emerges into a brilliant realm of whimsically shaped landmasses, shockingly blue skies, and an almost ethereal cityscape. In this captivating world, flowers are made from sparkling gems, characters travel in delicate bubbles, and a raging fireball of doom rumbles through the sky. The audience is taken for an exhilarating ride through scenery so sharp and flawless that getting lost in this fantasy land is inevitable.

From the start, the title is meant to lead you into the irony of the film. The average viewer already knows the main character is only an ordinary man and not a powerful wizard. The screenplay builds on that concept with the protagonist Oscar Diggs-a sleazy, sweet-talking con artist who performs as a circus magician named Oz. That is where the inconsistency begins to show. The choice to use the moniker of Oz early in the film makes little sense, considering that the name Oz traditionally refers to the place and not the man.

The same issues continue as Oscar's character develops. His desire to romance every woman alive quickly leads him into trouble as he flees the circus in a hot air balloon to escape an enraged husband. As Oscar lands in Oz, he is met by the naïve and wistful Theodora, a young witch portrayed by Mila Kunis. James Franco tackles the lead role with little success. Franco's portrayal lacks the charisma and vigor Oscar is supposed to have. Much like the actor's lackluster hosting skills at the 2010 Academy Awards, his performance as Oscar feels flat and unenthusiastic.

Regardless, the wayward magician's false charm wins the heart of Theodora, sparking the bitter fallout that later ensues. The 1939 version of the Wizard is a shameless pretender; Franco's latest version is also a dishonest scoundrel. Combined, those two facts raise the question of how the character's quest to become a "great man" leads right back to the same place.

More plot holes appear as two other competing witches are introduced: actress Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch and Rachel Weisz as Theodora's older sister, Evanora. The two women each try to persuade Oscar to defeat the other.

In the middle is Theodora, the only one of the witches who believes Oscar may be the long-awaited savior prophesied to restore peace in Oz. Williams stands out as a sickeningly sweet, but clever do-gooder, while Weisz is the true belle of the ball-or screen-as a beguiling manipulator. Unfortunately, having three witches crowds the screen with little time to fully develop any of the women. Williams and Weisz equally outshine Kunis, which is troubling when you consider that the latter actress is destined to transform into the cackling, green-faced villainess everyone loves.

Heartless rejection from Oscar proves to be the catalyst for Theodora's devolution. In hopes of curing her love sickness, she is tricked into eating a poisoned apple by her conniving and much smarter sister. Yet, the one-day romance between Oscar and Theodora hardly feels like a reason for such drastic heartache. Theodora is instantly turned into a violent and vengeful monster, and by default, Oscar ends up on the side of "good" and leads a war against the witchy sisters. Theodora's change seems to occur simply because a cackling, green-faced witch exists in that other "Oz" film.

Under the guidance of a director like Sam Raimi, the film offers the right balance of lighthearted playfulness and dark undertones. The movie's best creature creations are screeching, flying baboons sent to do Evanora's evil bidding. The writers try to recapture the camaraderie of the original "Oz" with Oscar's magical companions, a loyal talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff and a living china doll voiced by child actress Joey King. Several of the original plot elements are mirrored, such as the victorious Oscar giving out special gifts to his allies at the end of the film. Familiar characters like the Cowardly Lion also make brief, unnecessary cameos that add nothing to the plot.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" isn't likely to reach the status of a classic, but it's still worthwhile to experience this fresh take on the Oz folklore. Good seems to triumph in the end, but it's hard to tell with this character lineup. Looking at the Wizard's role in the original novels and the 1939 film, it might have worked better to map Oscar's evolution from a "great man" to a barely likeable man.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5