With James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Zach Braff. Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by Sam Raimi. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. 130 minutes.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is, in effect, a prequel to the beloved 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, there’s a tip of the hat to L. Frank Baum (who wrote the Oz books) but director Sam Raimi and his collaborators knew that for most viewers Oz is “somewhere over the rainbow.” Without being slavish about it, they make numerous nods to the film from more than seven decades ago. It makes this a much more comfortable fit than Disney’s dark 1985 sequel “Return to Oz.”
Although presented in 3D, the film opens in black-and-white with the traditional, squarish, “Academy” screen ratio. There are subtle hints that the film is going to go beyond those limits but not until a tornado drops off circus magician Oz (James Franco) in a magical land do we switch to color and widescreen. Then we discover just how he became the powerful wizard of the Emerald City, defeating the evil witches of West (Mila Kunis) and East (Rachel Weisz).
As in the Judy Garland film, the world of Oz has strong echoes of the Kansas left behind. The benevolent flying monkey Finley is voiced by Zach Braff, who was the magician’s hapless and unappreciated assistant. The wheelchair-bound girl who begs him for help provides the voice of the China Girl (Joey King), whose broken legs he reattaches. And Glinda the Good Witch is played by Michelle Williams, who was also the love he leaves behind because he’s a scoundrel and charlatan who can’t be pinned down.
There is a lot to like here, from how Oz evolves into the man we will come to know as the beloved wizard, to how Theodora (Kunis) turns into the embittered Wicked Witch of the West. Visually the film is a feast. This may be the first family-friendly acid flashback. There are sequences where you’re just overwhelmed.
Raimi, whose credits include movies like “Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell,” wisely gets that he’s making a Disney movie. He provides some scares – the flying monkeys are even more horrifying in 3D – but makes sure this is kid-safe. If your youngsters can handle “The Wizard of Oz,” they should be able to handle this.
Where the film falls short is in its length. At 130 minutes, it is just too long, with a climactic battle that is so slow that even one of the characters on screen asks that it be sped up. The tensions between the three witches are also overplayed where our attention ought to stay focused on Oz. Perhaps they wanted to make sure fans of the Broadway musical “Wicked” were also satisfied.
As the magician, Franco is a charming cad whose realization that he might make a difference comes naturally. The special effects are superb with two of the best characters – Finley and the China Girl – among the movie’s most endearing characters. Adults and lovers of the Oz fantasies should enjoy it, but the real audience for “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the kids, who will find the adventures colorful and thrilling. They’ll be able to segue from this to the 1939 movie without missing a beat.
It’s no masterpiece, but it is fun in the way that the live action “Alice in Wonderland” – from the same producers and directed by Tim Burton – was not. If you’re old and cynical take some kids. You’ll have a much better time.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.