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"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL"
(2013) (James Franco, Mila Kunis) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Adventure/Fantasy: An early 20th century magician is transported to a fantastical world where he's mistaken for and then pretends to be a powerful wizard who must defeat a wicked witch.
PLOT:
It's 1905 and Oscar "Oz" Diggs (JAMES FRANCO) is a stage magician who performs, with the help of assistants such as Frank (ZACH BRAFF), in front of small crowds in a traveling circus. He's good enough to fool the less sophisticated locals, but ends up chased onto a hot air balloon by a jealous circus strong man. Once aloft, Oz is sucked into an approaching tornado and transported to a fantastical and vibrant land filled with odd plants and creatures.

He ends up meeting Theodora (MILA KUNIS), a witch who wants peace in this land -- that's also known as Oz -- and believes him to be a prophesized and powerful wizard who can bring it about. After rescuing a talking and flying monkey, Finley (voice of ZACH BRAFF), they set off for the Emerald City to meet Theodora's sister, Evanora (RACHEL WEISZ). She's also a witch and informs Oz that he must travel to the dark forest, find the Wicked Witch who's causing all of the problems, and break her magic wand, thus destroying her power.

Oz and Finley reluctantly set off to do that and end up rescuing a small and young porcelain doll, China Girl (voice of JOEY KING), whose village was destroyed by the flying baboon minions of the Wicked Witch. After entering the dark forest, they encounter a witch they believe to be their target, but who's actually Glinda (MICHELLE WILLIAMS), a good witch who informs them of the true identity of the wicked one. With the aid of Master Tinker (BILL COBBS) and his workers, city herald Knuck (TONY COX), and others including the diminutive munchkins, the disparate and unlikely team tries to figure out how to defeat the Wicked Witch once and for all.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Oh, to be able to travel back in time and view audiences -- or even join them -- watching movies back when they were still something of a novelty to most folks. Although the cinema got its footing in the 1920s, it really took off in the '30s and started expanding into many genres, with the increased use of special effects.

While today's viewers are fairly jaded in terms of being completely blown away by the look and feel of any movie (what with nearly a century of films, followed by TV shows, home video, computer games and such diluting the novelty factor), those in the time of the Great Depression likely had quite a different reaction. And that's particularly true -- and especially for kids -- if they got to experience the likes of "Frankenstein," "King Kong" and "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time.

The latter, based on L. Frank Baum's book, was probably stunning for young minds, what with its scenes changing from being bathed in sepia to painted in vibrant Technicolor; the array of bizarre, odd and fascinating characters; and a young protagonist with whom they could easily identify as she just wanted to go home. After not exactly burning up the box office upon its initial release, its popularity exponentially increased with repeated showings and especially once it became a staple on TV where it fascinated, scared and entertained generations of kids.

Various other films have subsequently attempted to recapture that magic (including 1978's "The Wiz"), but none have succeeded, while other variations such as the Broadway musical "Wicked" have played off the original film's legend and messed around a bit with its facts, back-story and such. Now we can add "Oz the Great and Powerful" to that mix.

A prequel to the events in the Judy Garland version, it's the tale of a magician (James Franco) in the year 1905 who's magically transported to Oz -- natch, from a black and white to color world by a tornado -- where the locals are still awaiting the arrival of its wizard. Yes, the Emerald City is there, along with the Yellow Brick Road, some munchkins, scary trees, even scarier flying primates and a number of witches (played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams).

But the pivotal character who Dorothy and her newly acquired friends and travel-mates later set off to find is yet to be situated in his spot, and this tale -- penned by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire -- delivers the story of how that comes to be. I'm still somewhat torn in my reaction to the film. The opening is terrific and played just right in introducing Franco as a low-end traveling stage magician who's only looking out for himself. The early introduction to the land of Oz is fun, but then goes on too long.

Fans and/or purists of the 1939 classic will likely have differing reactions to the various tie-ins and connections back to that film. That includes the use of some of the same storytelling tricks such as having characters from the prologue appear as different ones in the fantastical world. The development of various bits and elements from the 70+ year old film are also introduced and structured to flow into that pic, including the origins of the Wicked Witch, her appearance and her modus operandi.

At times, however, director Sam Raimi (the "Spider-Man" films of the mid 2000s) lingers too long on the wonders of the place as well as the spectacle of it all. And some of the performances aren't stellar, regardless of whether that's accidental or purposeful in attempting to connect to the acting style of the earlier flick.

In fact, I agree with some of my colleagues who state that the best performance comes from a computer-generated small porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King) who steals every scene she's in from her human counterparts, followed in distant second place by a computer-generated flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff). Franco is better than he appears in the commercials (where he looks as bad as he did hosting the Oscars), but the three lovely ladies playing the witches could have used additional material and subtext in developing and embodying their characters.

Thus, it all comes off as a mixed bag, with various fun moments battling it out with some tedious and/or bombastic and noisy moments. It's neither great nor horrible and thus ends up in no man's land. While it certainly has more potential to scare the Underoos off young kids than its predecessor, I doubt it will mesmerize them as much or have the legendary staying power of the '39 flick. But if it leads young viewers (or even adults) who've never seen that earlier pic to find it, then at least we won't feel the need to click our ruby slipper heels together to get out of Dodge -- um, Oz. "Oz the Great and Powerful" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 4, 2013 / Posted March 8, 2013


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