‘Oz’ fares well despite a truly tough act to follow
Updated: March 7, 2013 4:03PM
‘Oz the Great and Powerful’
Credit director Sam Raimi for the nerve (or “da noive” as the Cowardly Lion would put it) to skip down the same Yellow Brick Road as the 1939 original “Oz,” one of the most beloved and iconic of all Hollywood movies.
“The Wizard of Oz,” after all, is a tough act to follow, as Disney found with its first attempt, 1985’s box-office belly flop “Return to Oz.” It’s too early to tell if the studio’s current attempt, a mega-budgeted prequel emphasizing eye-popping visual effects, will receive a kinder welcome. It does have a couple of things in its favor, though. Despite its shortcomings, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is consistently entertaining and its heart is in the right place.
The new “Oz” opens in 1905 Kansas, shot in black and white as the “Wizard of Oz” was in its early scenes, and even framed in the square aspect ratio of pre-widescreen Hollywood films. We’re there to meet the wonderful wizard of Oz before he got so wonderful, when he was plain old Oscar Diggs, a.k.a. Professor Oz (James Franco), a cheesy carnival magician, heartbreaking womanizer, abusive employer and all-around un-likeable guy.
He does have big dreams, though, and a hint of hidden goodness that’s enough to keep angelic farm girl Annie (Michelle Williams) interested in him — right up to the moment when he flees from a cuckolded Strong Man into a hot-air balloon, where he takes flight just in time for a familiar tornado to whisk him up to the Land of Oz.
He knows he’s not in Kansas anymore because the now-widescreen landscape is ultra-saturated with resplendent color: giant purple flowers, peevish pastel river fairies, a gleaming neon-green city off in the distance, and a very fashionably dressed witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) introducing herself in the foreground.
Theodora spots him right away as the prophesized Wizard of Oz who has come to help her people overthrow the cruel Wicked Witch and claim the throne for himself. Oscar likes the part about claiming the throne (especially when he hears of the overflowing treasury). He also likes the looks of the innocent Theodora and proceeds to seduce her with extremely dangerous consequences. He begins to think his con game might not be worth it, though, when he learns of the power struggle between three witch sisters — Theodora, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Williams again). And the little mystery about which of them is actually Wicked.
It takes a long time to find out whether or not Oscar will uncover his true greatness — and goodness — and there are occasional dramatic lags along the way that break up the magical momentum. There’s also a bit too much self-conscious meta-ness about the scenario, Franco playing it hipster-cool for the most part, with one eyebrow cocked ironically and a big toothy grin that tends to come across as a disturbing leer. There are also a few too many wisecracks built into the script — mainly between the wannabe wizard and his companions Finley (a flying-monkey personal assistant played by Zach Braff) and a spunky porcelain doll named China Girl (Joey King).
Raimi tries to strike a balance between a hip sensibility and the entirely non-ironic values of the “Wizard of Oz,” in which the greatest virtues are goodness, courage, selflessness and yet more goodness. Despite wobbling here and there, he ultimately delivers the whole-hearted wholesomeness the story demands.
There’s nothing iffy about his success delivering the visual dazzle he’s always been famous for, from “The Evil Dead” to his “Spider-Man” trilogy — especially in the almost constant stream of inventive 3D effects. In “Oz the Great and Powerful,” 3D is handled the old-fashioned way, for maximum fun and the occasional thrill.