“Oz the Great and Powerful” is a fantasy grand slam, a lavish, epic fantasy that pulls you into its imagined world so convincingly you’ll think you arrived by tornado. This movie also boasts some of the best 3D since “Avatar,” and people who don’t pony up the extra money for the 3D really will be losing out.
James Franco’s character in “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a con man who’s drafted into a conflict that’s too big for him. The same perhaps could be said of the movie itself, which, like its main character, manages to use sleight of hand and technology to save the day.
Franco plays Oz, which is short for Oscar. His whole name is too long to remember and isn’t in the credits anyway. A carny magician who dreams of greater things, Oz is about to get what appears to be about to get a well-deserved thumping from a circus strongman, whose girlfriend has become one of Oz’s numerous conquests, when a well-timed tornado whisks his hot air escape balloon away to the magical land of Oz. That sequence, which is in black and white and shot in a pre-wide screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is familiar-looking. For better or worse, director Sam Raimi and his production design team do not to try to reinvent the wheel on certain elements. Did you really want the Emerald City to look different?
Once there, Oz encounters Mila Kunis, who introduces herself as Theodora, a witch, and tells him that he’s the fulfillment of a prophecy about a wizard who’s going to free the land from the tyranny of a wicked witch. Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams also co-star in the movie, they also play witches, and if I tell you who’s who it’s going to ruin certain surprises. There are reasons that there are, so far at least, no publicity stills of one of them in particular in full makeup.
Suffice it to say that the screenplay, by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, works hard at generating some surprise in a story that the filmmakers clearly want to feel familiar. After three “Spider-Man” movies, director Sam Raimi should certainly feel comfortable with high-tech properties and he helms this sure-handedly. Much of this movie had to be made in a computer, and if some of it looks it (it does), there are also scenes redolent with mood. "Oz the Great and Powerful" was shot in 3D on RED Epic cameras, rapidly becoming an industry standard.
Although there is are obvious nods to "The Wizard of Oz," this iteration is not a musical. No one in their right minds would try to top "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the first place (although thinking about it, that didn't stop some corporate lunkheads from greenlighting "Grease 2"). The munchkins do sing a little, because we'd probably miss it if they didn't. The Danny Elfman score is perfectly serviceable if a bit paint-by-numbers for him.
Some of this movie’s greatest strengths come from elements that are clearly inspired by, or at least imitative of, the 1939 movie. That approach backfired with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” which ultimately failed to provide audiences any new thrills. But that was a remake masquerading as a sequel. This is a prequel in which much of the entertainment is provided by seeing what happened before the events of the well-known movie classic. And rather like seeing high school yearbook pictures of your grandparents, it’s a kick in the head to see them young.
As with “The Wizard of Oz,” here the main character spends a great deal time interacting with non-human characters, whose motion capture performances are often done by actors who appeared in the prologue, as with Joey King, who plays a girl in a wheelchair the carny and the “China Girl” in Oz, and Zach Braff, who plays Oz’s assistant Frank in Kansas and the winged monkey Finley in Oz. The performances are good, and Franco in particular does some of his best work in a commercial vehicle since the “Spider-Man” movies.
There’s an obvious corporate crassness on the part of Disney in even attempting a sequel or prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”(“Oz the Great and Powerful” is the latter), but then one has to wonder why not? L. Frank Baum wrote a whole series of Oz books, and the classic 1939 M-G-M movie took substantial liberties. In franchise-obsessed industry, you can do worse than this.
Parents should be aware that there are frightening images and story elements in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but there were with “The Wizard of Oz” as well. The Wicked Witch of the West always was a scary movie villain...she still is, although now there are tragic underpinnings (much as in Gregory Maguire’s revisionist “Wicked”). The fact of the matter is that children expect to have nightmares now and then, and parents should feel comfortable telling them everything’s going to be all right in the end.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" is currently playing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Bow Tie Movieland in Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Spectrum 7 in Albany and the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8. Most venues have the movie in both 3D and 2D versions. SEE IT IN 3D.