The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Oz the Great and Powerful

Like most kids, I saw The Wizard of Oz innumerable times growing up. The funny thing is that, as an adult, I remembered everything right up to the minute where the characters reached Emerald City. All the stuff with the actual wizard had completely vacated my memory banks. About a decade or so ago, I rewatched the film in order to write about a special edition DVD that was being released and was a bit astonished by how dark and creepy things get for a few minutes there. The wizard is a minor character at best, which may be why I didn't recall him, but now Sam Raimi's prequel Oz the Great and Powerful gives us the backstory on that odd little man behind the curtain.

In a rather ingenious twist, Oz begins with a 15-minute black-and-white prologue, shot in a square aspect ratio just as the original film was. James Franco plays a small-time magician named Oz who berates his assistant (Zach Braff) and incessantly womanizes. When the husband of one conquest comes looking for him, Oz hops into a hot air balloon and flies away, only to get sucked into a tornado. He awakens in the magical land also known as Oz. At this point, the film turns to color and expands to a lush widescreen aspect ratio.

The first person Oz meets is a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She tells him about her evil sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who has a plan to bring unrest to the land. Oz agrees to help defeat the mean witch, believing he will receive great riches for doing so. Along the way, he meets a winged monkey, a little china doll, and a good witch named Glinda (Michelle Williams). There are also munchkins. Lots and lots of munchkins. Evanora does not want to be defeated, but Oz quite literally has some tricks up his sleeve, and a battle for supremacy ensues.

Oz the Great and Powerful really should not be viewed in light of The Wizard of Oz, despite technically being a prequel. The plot is fairly uninspired; it's the usual stuff about whether the selfish guy can find goodness in his heart. It is also packed and I mean packed - with CGI and manic action. Whereas Victor Fleming's 1939 Oz is a soulful tale, Raimi's prequel is oddly soulless, existing as little more than an effects-laden action extravaganza. The two films don't even begin to share a tone.

Having said that, I am not averse to effects-laden action extravaganzas, so long as they entertain, and Oz the Great and Powerful generally does. While it lacks in overall depth, the movie does have plenty of individual scenes that are remarkably fun and/or inventive. A sequence set in the Dark Forest is nicely creepy, with pairs of glowing eyes sneaking up behind the characters. The way Oz uses his skills as a performing magician to fight the Wicked Witch is clever, too. Sam Raimi understands how to use 3D, which highlights the very best sequences. When Oz is swept away in the tornado, Raimi makes sure to shoot from a high angle, so that you're looking right down into the funnel. Debris appears to fly out at you. A few minutes later, Oz is sent hurtling down some rushing rapids and over a waterfall, with the camera giving a dizzying first-person perspective. I didn't care too much about the material with the warring witches, yet on a scene-by-scene basis, I remained engaged because the set pieces are entertainingly executed. Oz is a satisfying joyride, if nothing else.

What I liked best, though, are the Raimi-esque touches scattered throughout. Weird camera angles, shots that mix mild horror with slapstick, and the appearance of the inimitable Bruce Campbell are all welcome sights. Anyone unfamiliar with the director's Evil Dead pictures won't get the joke, but Raimi fans will cackle with delight.

The casting is solid as well. James Franco is a good choice for Oz. He's sincere but kooky, earning laughs with his line delivery and physical comedy. Michelle Williams is an almost too-perfect choice to play Glinda the Good Witch, so pristine-looking is she, while Rachel Weisz exudes wonderful fairy tale evil as Evanora. Am I allowed to talk about Mila Kunis? The studio initially tried to keep her function in the story a secret, although that seems to be out of the bag now that the movie is in release. Let's just say that she gets to chew some scenery, and she does it wonderfully.

Anyone expecting Oz the Great and Powerful to be in the same league as The Wizard of Oz will be massively disappointed. Taken on its own terms as an FX-heavy crowdpleaser, though, the movie is entirely enjoyable. It may needlessly complicate exquisitely crafted source material, yet it's visually stunning, has enthusiastic performances, and is often quite funny.

( out of four)

Oz: The Great and Powerful is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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