Movies: "Oz the Great and Powerful" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Oz the Great and Powerful"
Movies: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

 

Disney Studios took a big risk with this prequel to “The Wizard of Oz.”  After all, the original is one of the most beloved movies in history;  any attempt to tinker with it would bring out the pitchforks and torches.  

 

Also, “Oz” is the property of Warner Bros., who sent a team of lawyers to look over Disney’s shoulder to make sure nothing from that movie turned up in the new one.  Even ruby slippers were banned from the set.  

 

What’s more, there have been other “Oz” productions, including a long-running Broadway play and the less-favored “The Wiz.”  And finally, there was the ginormous cost of making “Oz the Great and Powerful,” coming hard on the heels of the Mouse House’s big-budget flop, “John Carter.”

 

Well, I’m here to tell you that Disney’s gamble paid off.  This new “Oz” is a spectacular thrill-ride, thanks in large part to the creative genius of its director Sam Raimi.

 

Before he moved on to helming the first three “Spider Man” movies, Raimi was best known for his imaginative low-budget horror movies, including the brilliant “Evil Dead” trilogy and he draws heavily on those early works for the scarier parts of “Oz.”  And there are plenty of them throughout the movie, which explains its PG rating.  

 

No Dorothy on this trip.  It’s James Franco as a two-bit circus magician who calls himself Oz, who finds himself transported from Kansas via tornado to the colorful land over the rainbow.  After a delightful series of opening credits, the movie starts off like the original, in black and white.  Some of that sequence drags a bit, but by the time Franco’s caught up in the whirlwind, Raimi lets it fly, with all manner of dangerous debris threatening his hot air balloon.  (I saw the movie in 3-D, which I highly recommend on this outing.)

 

Things perk up even more when he crash lands in Oz, sailing straight down a waterfall, hearing bells chime as giant tulips wave in the wind, and encountering the zaftig witch Theodora (Mila Kunis).  She informs our boy that the arrival of a great wizard has been foreseen and latches onto him with dreams of sharing the throne.  They also meet up with a friendly flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), and off they go to the Emerald City, where they are greeted by Theodora’s more skeptical sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz). 

 

Blinded by the vast treasures of the royal vault, Oz agrees to venture forth to destroy the Wicked With of the West.  Along the way, Oz and Finley pick up another pilgrim, a tiny China doll (voiced by Joey King), and eventually Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) who will eventually help Oz realize his true calling.  As with the original “Oz,” many of the characters we meet reflect people Oz had encountered back in Kansas.

 

A movie like this sinks or swims on the strength of its production values, and Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have been assisted by some of the best, including production designer Robert Stromberg, whose previous credits range from “Avatar” to “Master and Commander.”  There’s a delightful soundtrack courtesy of the prolific Danny Elfman and dynamic cinematography by Peter Deming, whose credits include Raimi’s most recent horror movie, “Drag Me to Hell.”

 

I should also single out some of the supporting players, including Tony Cox as the diminutive herald Knuck, Bill Cobbs as the inventive Master Tinker and Raimi favorite Bruce Campbell as the Oz Gatekeeper, who suffers a scene straight out of the Three Stooges.

 

But ultimately, this is a Sam Raimi movie, full of crowd scenes, swooping camera shots from every conceivable angle, and populated by a winning cast of characters, not the least of which is Franco in his most charming role.

It may never be as beloved as the original -- after all, it doesn't have Judy Garland, Toto or much singing -- but it's  still a delightful movie.

 

I give it an A.

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