"Oz the Great and Powerful" is a wonderfully entertaining prequel, of sorts, to the time honored "Wizard of Oz" film which starred Judy Garland as Dorothy. In that original 1939 film, The Wizard was mostly a secondary character relegated to the film's closing act, and revealed to be less of a true wizard and more charlatan with a heart of gold.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" under the skillful direction of Sam Raimi ( The Evil Dead, the original Spider-Man trilogy ) pulls the curtain back once again on the Wizard by attempting to show his humble origin and how this failed carnival magician in Kansas arrived at the wondrous land of Oz in the first place; and also came to be the great and powerful Wizard we all know so well.
While there are no ruby slippers to be found in this film, Raimi makes numerous nods to the Garland classic in the narrative; while at the same time creating a fascinatingly enjoyable new experience for those familiar with the numerous incarnations of L. Frank Baum's beloved characters from the original books which he wrote.
Taking a cue from the 1939 film, Raimi opens his film in the same fashion as the MGM original. In hues of black and white and cropped screen scale, we meet the character of Oz ( James Franco ) as a conniving, yet charming, magician, charlatan and romantic cad grinding out a meager living performing at a seedy carnival midway. Along the way in this prologue, we meet characters such as his underpaid assistant ( Zach Braff ), a lovely woman who silently adores him ( Michelle Williams ) and a crippled little girl in a wheelchair ( Joey King ).
As in the classic original with Dorothy, all these Kansas bound characters will return in a new form to Franco's Oz when he reaches his magical new destination. When a crowd turns against him during a performance, among other concurrent mishaps, Oz is forced to jump aboard a nearby hot air balloon which is sucked into an approaching tornado. Just like Dorothy in years yet to come, Oz is plopped down into a wide-screen, brilliantly colored and magical 3D world on the outskirts of the famed Emerald City.
Soon, Oz meets a beautiful young witch named Theodora ( Mila Kunis ) who mistakes him for the famed Wizard that will free the land of Oz from the scourge of the wicked witch. Soon enough, Oz is introduced to a variety of new friends and characters that include a loyal flying monkey, a small orphaned girl made of fragile china, and Glinda the Good Witch. All of whom resemble in some way the people he left behind in Kansas.
Eventually, Oz also meets Theodora's sister, Evanora ( Rachel Weisz ) in the Emerald City who, on the surface seems benevolent, but instead will figure prominently in the fates of all, including the creation of the evil green hued Wicked Witch of the West with whom we are all so familiar. Like Theodora, Evanora believes Oz may indeed be the great Wizard of legend. However, first he must prove his mettle by destroying the evil witch before he can claim the Emerald City's throne and it's riches.
James Franco displays considerable charm in his role as the initially reluctant and ill-equipped Wizard. However, it's the bewitching trio of Kunis, Weisz and Williams ( all of whom look absolutely radiant in this film, for the most part ) that ultimately steals the show in this film, especially in the scenes in which the women as witchy adversaries face off with magical effect and venom.
The CGI effects and secondary characters in this film are both endearing and spectacular, as one might expect of a film about the wonderful land of Oz. The characters of Oz's new friend, Finley the flying monkey and the little China Child evoke surprisingly effective human-like emotion and pathos for computer generated characters. This is the colorful and truly whimsical film that Tim Burton's similarly themed live action "Alice in Wonderland" should have been, but failed miserably in the doing.
Again, while there are no ruby slippers to be found in this film due to copyright ownership by MGM; the witches' loyal flying monkeys have been changed by Raimi into far more frightening baboons ready to rend and shred at their wicked masters' command. Meanwhile, many of the other familiar elements are also present for the Oz faithful; from the yellow brick road to the musically minded Munchkins.
Director Raimi displays a few too many climatic moments towards the end of this film, which also could be shortened by about 15 minutes without hurting the enjoyment factor.
However, overall "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a visual screen delight; a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling adventure for both adults who love the classic Oz stories; as well as for the kids new to the wondrous land that exists over the rainbow.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.