130 minutes | MPAA rating: PG
1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” was a movie for kids that – by virtue of its wit, music, and the universal emotions it evokes – has become a movie for everyone.
Seventy decades from now, “Oz the Great and Powerful” will remain just a movie for kids.
Providing it is remembered at all.
This non-musical 3-D prequel from Disney and director Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” franchise) has some terrific visuals and a few moments of effective humor, but overall it’s a letdown. And not just when compared to the Judy Garland classic.
The yarn centers on Oz (James Franco), a turn-of-the-century stage magician working the Kansas fair circuit. He’s a scrambilng, womanizing con artist who, blown by a tornado into the Land of Oz, finds himself hailed as the wizard who will free the realm from the depredations of an evil witch.
Think Han Solo undergoing a metamorphosis from selfish space smuggler to fervent revolutionary warrior.
Raimi get some things right. A black-and-white prequel set on the Kansas plains exudes a tongue-in-cheek appreciation for good old American flimflammery, and the tornado that sucks up Oz and his hot air balloon is spectacularly rendered.
As with the original film, upon landing in Oz the screen not only bursts into vibrant colors, but it actually grows to nearly twice its original size. And the 3-D, hinted at in the Kansas sequence, is now pronounced.
Oz is greeted by the good witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), a wide-eyed innocent who cannot wait to install this newcomer on the Emerald Throne. More dubious is her witchy sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a Machiavellian CEO type who recognizes a huckster when she sees one and arranges for Oz to go on an expedition to slay the southerly witch who is the source of all their woes.
Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire pull a couple of narrative switcheroos here. Turns out the object of Oz’s
quest, the witch Glenda (Michelle Williams), is actually virtuous. It’s Evanora who’s been tormenting the citizenry. And Theodora, believing herself spurned by Oz, goes from deer-in-the-headlights modesty to green-skinned wickeness of the Margaret Hamilton variety.
Basically the cowardly Oz must raise an army and use what little magic he possesses to pull off the biggest illusion of his career in a battle with the bad witches’ forces.
For all the f/x and cast of thousands, this is pretty much the James Franco show. He’s been terrific as a hiker forced to saw off his own arm and excels at celluloid stoners. But this is a role that requires a delicate balancing act between sincerity and parody, and Franco never quite finds the right tone.
If only George Clooney were 25 years younger.
The film provides Oz with a couple of interesting sidekicks. Zach Braff is the voice of Finley, an animated winged monkey and accomplished kvetcher who becomes Oz’s personal servant. And Joey King gives us the film’s most fascinating character in China Girl, a knee-high ceramic doll with big sad eyes who evokes more emotional response than any other element of the film.
Weisz makes for an effective corporate sorceress. Kunis is hopelessly bland as Theodora, but spectacularly sexy/scary when she transforms into the cackling Wicked Witch of the West. As the good Glinda, Williams succeeds in not looking too ridiculous – which is a triumph of sorts.
Design-wise “Oz the Great and Powerful” is all over the map. Some of the turn-of-the-century interiors are pretty cool, but the landscapes look like Maxfield Parrish on an acid trip. After a while you start gagging on all those puffy golden clouds.
But the wicked witches’ flying monkeys have been brilliantly re-imagined as snarling baboons with dog-like muzzles, slashing teeth and leathery pterodactyl wings.
And another thing: This “Oz” suffers from a bad case of elephantitis. The original “Wizard of Oz” ran for 101 minutes and left you wanting more. This one runs for 130 minutes and leaves you wishing it had ended a half hour earlier.
Now a bit of exhibition news: “Oz the Great and Powerful” was shown to Kansas City area critics on the newly refurbished Extreme Screen in Union Station. Whatever the merits of the movie, the presentation was spectacular.
This is the Midwest’s biggest movie screen (five stories tall, something like 80 feet wide) with new projectors and sound system. The image is a knockout, with none of the dim as-seen-through-sunglasses effect that plagues so much 3-D projection these days.
Previously the home of science documentaries (it’s adjacent to Science City), the Extreme Screen has been dark for most of a year. Now Union Station management plans on competing with conventional theaters by showing current commercial films. Locally-based exhibition stalwart Dickinson Theatres will manage the facility.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” will enjoy a three-week run with five shows a day (tickets are $10, well in line with the going rates); after that…well, we’ll see.
The question, of course, is whether the best picture quality in town can trump convenience. Will suburban filmgoers make the trek into the city for the Extreme Screen or stick with their local megaplexes?
The answer, I suspect, lies with the sorts of movies shown at Union Station. Some geeks and fanboys have shown a willingness to seek out the best possible projection for comic book-inspired and sci-fi titles. But are there enough of them?
| Robert W. Butler