Frank Baum's Land of Oz has always been fertile ground for toys, comics, and books seeking to put their own spin on the public domain property. But ever since "The Wizard of Oz," the movie industry just hasn’t managed to replicate the iconic film's success, and with good reason: "The Wizard of Oz" now defines the books, even if it wasn't a faithful adaptation. The yellow brick road is littered with failures: "Return to Oz," "The Wiz," and "Tin Man." It took a powerhouse like Disney to finally break the curse.
The first big challenge to the film's success is James Franco as Oscar Diggs (AKA the magician known as The Great Oz). Franco has something of an intellectual distance to him tinged with arrogance that makes him vaguely irritating – but it works here, because that's exactly how Oz is supposed to be. He's a ladies man who preys on willfully ignorant women, luring them into his wiles with manufactured tales of woe that lands him in hot water, a tornado, and ultimately Oz.
Oz's first encounter is the wide-eyed Theodora (Mila Kunis) who plays the witch as a kind of mentally-addled dreamer wistfully projecting her hopes and dreams on the handsome stranger. He's prophesized to be the savior of the Land of Oz, a powerful wizard who will reclaim the Emerald City. It's not that easy of course; the steward of Emerald City is Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and she's rightly skeptical of this new wizard who can't cast a single spell. With the Emerald City's riches egging him on, Oz is put on a quest to steal the wicked witch's wand. It's basically the plot of "Army of Darkness," with less skeletons and more monkeys.
Along the way, Oz will assemble his own motley crew of allies: flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King), a living china doll. The special effects excel in bringing these two characters to life, such that it's difficult not to stare at China Girl – a living doll that is expertly animated but fails to convincingly interact with any of the living characters.
Despite the fact that the plot centers on Oz being such an unlikeable cad that he turns women into witches, there's lots of things "Oz the Great and Powerful" gets right. For one, the script is tight – the lost art of foreshadowing is in full force here, and the movie neatly ties back to events that happen early in the film. For another, it expertly weaves in callouts to "The Wizard of Oz." There's nothing more or less to "Oz" than what's in the later film, but it still manages to seem fresh. From the framing, to the color transitions, to the soaring score by Danny Elfman, "Oz" never forgets its roots. It's a big movie with a capital "B."
"Oz" is far from perfect. It's a little off, a little too grand, a little too smarmy at times. But that's a description that could easily be applied to the Land of Oz. And in that regard Sam Raimi has pulled off something great and powerful.
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