Kansas, 1905. Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a magician with a traveling circus. He's also a con artist and a shameless ladies man. With no future to offer Annie (Michele Williams), a girl he might actually love, Oscar's day gets worse when he's exposed as a fraud during a show and then chased by the Strongman who's just discovered Oscar's been dallying with his lady. After making his escape in a hot air balloon, Oscar is whisked into a tornado and when he lands he finds himself in an exotic world that, strangely, has been expecting him. Theodora (Mila Kunis) explains that legend has it her kingdom will be saved by "Oz the Great and Powerful."
L. Frank Baum's tales of Oz have been given the cinematic treatment since the days of silent cinema, but since 1939's "The Wizard of Oz," results have been less than magical. Even the Muppets' version was lacking. Now, director Sam Raimi ("The Evil Dead," "Spider-Man"), working with a script by Mitchell Kapner ("The Whole Nine Yards") and David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rise of the Guardians"), gives Baum's world a 3D/CGI/origin story spin that has more life and imagination than it's seen in over 70 years, even if the modern technology used to achieve it is often less than satisfying.
The filmmakers had the tricky challenge of trying to adhere to the known without infringing on MGM's creations for the 1939 movie. So, there are no ruby slippers here. But the writers have retained the device of establishing characters in a black and white Kansas who will reappear in color-drenched Oz to complete their stories. Raimi even switches aspect ratio, beginning in academic, then unfurling a widescreen image for Oz.
Our first vision of this new place is problematic, though, looking like a land waiting more for Willy Wonka than the Wizard with its garish colors, bird/fish and biting river fairies. Oscar/Oz is found at his crash site by Theodora, a beautiful woman in swashbuckling garb who tells him she's a witch and informs him of his destiny. Oz puts the moves on her and they journey to Emerald City where he's told a throne and countless riches await him. Also awaiting is Theodora's sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who shows him the goods but informs him that he must kill the wicked witch, their cousin Glinda (Michelle Williams), in order to acquire them. She also whips Theodora, who has assumed she will become Oz's Queen, into a jealousy pique and it seems Theodora's got some evil juju going on.
Oz knows nothing of this and sets off on the yellow brick road with Finley (voice of Zach Braff), a uniformed monkey who sounds much like Oscar's unappreciated assistant back home. They come across a smoking wreckage and find its only survivor. China Girl (voice of Joey King, "Ramona and Beezus," also a handicapped child in Kansas) tells them the witch's flying baboons caused the destruction and Oz performs a little 'magic,' using good old Kansas glue to repair her broken legs. This trio bands together to find the witch, but when they do Oz discovers who he's really up against and what he's really made of. Oscar's admiration of Thomas Edison and Houdini serve him well for Oz's big showdown.
Much of Raimi's Oz is striking. China Girl is a terrific CGI creation, complete with ceramic sound effects. Finley's not the most realistic looking monkey facially, but the character as envisioned works. But the use of CGI for creating landscape in conjunction with high definition digital photography shows up the separation of set and green screen in a way that calls more attention to itself than 1939's matte work and backdrops. 3D also accentuates the division, but does work favorably in action scenes (and, refreshingly, is used like its gimmicky beginnings for some occasional carnie style scares). Costume and makeup are very well done, from Evanora's emerald crystal gown (which proves to be a dress-of-a-different-color) to the elaborate individual dressing of the Munchkins The Winkie guard (watch for Raimi regular Bruce Campbell ("The Evil Dead") at the gate) harken back in look and sound without actually voicing the 'All We Know We Owe Her' chant. One witch's transformation into a more well known visage takes place in shadow, like Medusa in "Jason and the Argonauts."
As with the production, casting has its ups and downs beginning with Franco, whose Oscar is too flippant, but who grows into Oz. Kunis is better than one might expect, but her vocal pitch isn't powerful enough to do rage justice. Weisz, while regal, is also lacking in malevolence. Williams fares best, pure, good and beautiful, although the writers have made this Glinda a worrier when Billie Burke's laughed in the face of evil. In smaller roles, Bill Cobbs (TV's 'Go On') inspires faith as the Master Tinker and Tony Cox's ("Bad Santa") sour carriage driver Knuck is comic relief.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" has not only opened the door for a new Oz franchise, but it has done so as the best on the recent cinematic fairy tale bandwagon. This is a far better film than Tim Burton's immensely successful "Alice in Wonderland." And yet, for all Raimi's wizardry, that dreamlike quality so believable with practical effects and silver nitrate film seems lost to digital technology. It's telling that "Oz" looks its best with its theatrical paper cutout credits and black and white prologue.
Robin did not see this film.
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