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'Oz' Whips Up Charmed Origin Story

Catherine Green |
March 11, 2013 | 10:17 a.m. PDT



James Franco and Mila Kunis star in the "Wizard of Oz" prequel. (MovieWeb.com)
James Franco and Mila Kunis star in the "Wizard of Oz" prequel. (MovieWeb.com)
Sam Raimi could have been walking into a career killer when he signed on to direct "Oz the Great and Powerful" — done poorly, his flick had the potential to desecrate the legacy of "The Wizard of Oz," enraging countless movie buffs.

But by yanking the audience back to a time before the original, "Oz the Great and Powerful" doesn’t overstep its bounds into the vault of Great American Classics, delivering instead a charming, visually joyful first chapter. 

The opening scene drops us into a grayscale Kansas circa 1905. Before his tenure as the great wizard of Oz, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a womanizing carnival magician, and though adept in sleight of hand, not a terribly successful one at that. He and his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) scrape by in threadbare jackets and dusty hats while putting on their rickety show for skeptical fairgoers. Oscar knows he’s not a good man, but that doesn’t bother him much. He tells his one-that-got-away Annie (Michelle Williams), “Kansas is full of good men. I want to be a great one.”

He gets the chance to become one when the traveling circus’ strong man finds out Oscar’s been canoodling with his girl. The resulting rampage chases Oscar up into a hot air balloon just before a tornado sweeps through. Cowering in the balloon’s basket at the mercy of the cyclone, he pleads with a higher being above the din of swirling carnival debris: “I don’t want to die! I haven’t accomplished anything yet! Gimme a chance — I promise I can change!”

Destiny takes his word for it, and delivers him to Oz, where a prophecy has set expectations high that a great wizard will save the kingdom from conniving, murderous witches. But at first, it’s unclear who fits the bill for any of these roles. Mila Kunis plays Theodora, the witch who finds Oz once he’s landed and falls for his charms — hard enough that it eventually initiates her descent into truly wicked territory.

Her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) runs the show inside Emerald City.Claiming to be the slain king’s royal advisor, she dispatches Oz to kill the woman she says is the wicked witch. Joined by a flying bellhop monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff) and a talking porcelain doll (Joey King), Oz sets out only to find his target is Glinda (Williams again), who bears a striking resemblance to his lost love Annie. Infatuation with the nurturing witch — not to mention a bounty of gold at stake — is enough to get Oz to take on the sister temptresses.

Williams, with old-fashioned beauty that made audiences take note in 2011’s "My Week With Marilyn," is perfect for the role of Glinda. Her sugary mannerisms drill down into the sweet tooth as deeply as Billie Burke’s cooing in the 1939 classic — and that’s oddly comforting. 

Franco as Oz is exactly what we expect — hit-or-miss. Sometimes he’s on point with the bombast and camp his role requires. In other scenes, he underwhelms, and his con-man-turning-over-a-new-leaf character feels typically half-baked. The college roommate dynamic he shares with Braff is among the more redeeming aspects of Franco’s performance. Otherwise, we don’t feel quite along for the ride as Oz undergoes his personal transformation from girl-crazy swindler to, well, girl-crazy swindler in a dazzling green palace.

As fun and endearing as Mila Kunis appears to be in bro-comedies and real life interviews, she’d do well to avoid sincere characters like pre-jilted Theodora. She gets the job done, peppering scenes with plenty of the nostalgic revelations we like in films like this (“Oh, that’s where the broom thing came from”). But she might not be a good enough actor to convincingly cover up the fiery personality audiences want out of her.

Meanwhile, her co-star Weisz is a standout as despicable witch Evanora, despite the actor’s ladylike reputation. We know from the beginning there’s something dark about her when Oz first arrives in Emerald City, but Weisz’s sinister portrayal is utterly convincing as it deepens throughout the film. 

Together with Braff and a legion of well-meaning Oz extras, the actors create a healthy ensemble, adding some interpersonal depth through manipulation, hesitant trust and disappointment. And Raimi’s film does what most prequels can’t — it makes the original feel more complete. Now we have a respectable backstory for the Man Behind the Curtain, one that shows consideration for the responsibility of advancing the treasured narrative. 

The storytelling is made all the better by a wondrous aesthetic. From steampunk to technicolor Candyland, everything about the ornamentation of the film is a treat. In the land of Oz’s brilliant color palette, canyonesque land sculptures, musical lilypads and hybrid creatures, we see the benefit of a modern day reboot. With better effects at their fingertips, Raimi and cinematographer Peter Deming were empowered to fully explore their imaginations on screen. Suffice it to say they didn’t waste the opportunity.

Braver even than its ambitious protagonist, "Oz the Great and Powerful" faces head-on the formidable challenge of crafting a kid-friendly fantasy film while honoring a moviemaking legend. It may never nestle inside the vault next to its predecessor, but at the very least, it’s earned a spot on plenty of Netflix queues for years to come.

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