Oz Great & Powerful ✮✮✮

In the Merry Old Land of Oz

by Glenn Lovell

In 1939, as the world hurtled toward war, “The Wizard of Oz” captured movie magic in a bottle. In the decades since, Hollywood has attempted to replicate that MGM classic’s alchemic blend of song, dance and fantasy. The results ‒ Oh, my! ‒ have run from wooden to stilted to downright embarrassing. Remember “The Return to Oz” and Michael Jackson in Sidney Lumet’s leaden “The Wiz”? These were the movie-going equivalent of being pecked to death by a squadron of flying monkeys.

Good news! Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a major improvement on other pretenders to the throne. Though hardly as imaginative as the original, the $200 million production is beautifully designed, nicely acted by James Franco as the titular mountebank and Michelle Williams as the good witch Glinda, and, best of all, boasts some of the nimblest integration of live action and computer-animated creatures we’ve encountered.

Oz-the-great-and-powerful-Franco-Thumb

Franco with China Girl: Handled with care

Directed by Sam Raimi, who toiled for the better part of a decade on the Spider-Man franchise, “Oz” works because it’s a prequel rather than a remake. Raimi and company began by agreeing the original was and remains iconic, a one-of-a-kind experience not to be tinkered with or pilfered. They’ve taken a mostly new slant while respecting the main plot points of the original. And they’ve succeeded in what must have been their goal of a film that could easily play on a double bill with the story of Dorothy and her three needy companions on the perilous Yellow Brick Road.

Once again we’re in Kansas. Only now it’s 1905. Like the Judy Garland “Oz,” the first 20 minutes are in sepia tones and Academy aspect ratio. In homage to the series’ author, the arrogant Oscar Diggs (Franco) plies his craft as part-time magician, full-time con artist at the Baum Brothers Circus. A serial Lothario, Diggs loves ’em and leaves ’em. Which, of course, leads to a hasty departure ‒ in hot-air balloon. Battered by a tornado, Diggs promises to mend his ways if can just set foot on land again. His prayers are, well, sort of answered: As the screen widens to Panavision and explodes in shimmering pastels, he splash-lands in Oz, just outside Emerald City, which, according to prophecy, is awaiting a wizard-king to deliver it from all manner of dark sorcery.

Unable to help himself, Diggs throws over the first woman he meets. Bad move. She turns out to be Theodora (Mila Kunis), who, after one bite of an apple, gives vent to her anger and develops a sickly green cast, crooked nose and familiar Margaret Hamilton cackle. Evanora (Rachel Weisz), her sister, proffered the bad fruit. She has her sights set on the throne.

With the royal treasury as impetus, Diggs accepts the role of witch wrangler/beneficent ruler. A coward by nature, he is less enthusiastic when he hears that some rough stuff might be involved.

Instead of a scarecrow, tin man and lion, Diggs is accompanied through the Dark Forest by Finley, a mouthy flying monkey (Zach Braff, a ringer for Nathan Lane), and China Girl (Joey King), a fragile-but-sassy porcelain doll. Down the road they hook up with Glinda, Good Witch of the South, who inspires our reluctant hero to surprising acts of selfless valor ‒ all involving illusion and misdirection, of course.  (As in the 1939 film, these characters have their human equivalents in the Kansas prologue.)

As you should be able to tell by this description, “Oz,” like its still disturbing predecessor, is meant for tweeners and older, not tykes. Befittting Raimi’s apprenticeship on the “Evil Dead” movies, it contains some in-your-face, PG-rated shocks, like the giant green claw that announces Theodora’s transformation and the evil witch’s winged baboons. But what really sets this fantasy apart are the sweeter moments, such as the wry interplay between Diggs and his cute-as-a-button monkey valet and, a personal favorite, the scene in which Diggs reassembles China Girl with a special elixir from his bag. The latter, besides representing the finest in CG/live action integration, conjures something we rarely expect of big-budget movies ‒ genuine charm.

While “Oz” doesn’t have a libretto per se, it does have an excellent score by Danny Elfman and a snippet of a song. The Munchkin “Welcome” begins on a dangerously familiar note ‒ just as Diggs, heading off the copyright police, yells, “That’s enough singing!”

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL ✮✮✮ With James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King. Directed by Sam Raimi; scripted by Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire from L. Frank Baum books. 130 min. Rated PG (for scary witches, fantasy violence)

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