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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
China Girl, voiced by Joey King, becomes one of the Wizard’s new friends.
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★★★✩✩

Oz The Great and Powerful

Directed by Sam Raimi

Starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rache Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Zach Braff

Rated PG

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Oz The Great and Powerful is a prequel to Victor Fleming’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. In keeping with this, Oz The Great and Powerful begins in gray scale and transitions to color, and the plot involves the Wizard making a medley of new friends. Like the musical Wicked, the film imagines the origins of an important but secondary character, in this case the Wizard of Oz. This version of events, too, explains how the Wicked Witch of the West became so wicked, and sets the scene for L. Frank Baum’s story in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Oz’s main problem is that, as one spectator said, it “reeks of Disney.” Let me qualify that. The film is another 3-D animation, and it is another prequel to a much beloved classic. Naturally, the Wizard (James Franco) gains a trusty sidekick, who provides advice, sarcastic comments (much like a monkey version of the donkey in Shrek), and on occasion acts cute to elicit an “Aww” from the audience (ditto for Puss in Boots, but with smaller eyes).

The film makes the most of its digital and 3-D capabilities. Some of the Wizard’s new friends, such as the little porcelain girl and the aforementioned monkey, are impressive examples of the use of computer-generated imagery. The film welcomes the viewer to a fantastical, Willy Wonka-esque land of musical lily pads and plasticky bejewelled flowers, where the colors are exaggerated and garish. There are also numerous “cheap scares”, that is to say, there is a tendency for flying baboons and carnivorous plants to randomly lunge out at the viewer.

The film tries, sometimes uneasily, to be a film for both children and adults. There is a generous (and welcome) sprinkling of tongue-in-cheek adult humor, based mainly on the wizard’s womanizing habits. There are also some standard take-home morals, such as “Don’t underestimate little girls,” and “If someone believes in you, don’t let them down” (particularly if that someone is a good-looking witch). At the same time, I occasionally struggled to suspend my disbelief – for example, at the simplistic jealousy of the soon-to-be Wicked Witch of the West, and at the Wizard’s attempts to steal a wand in plain sight.

The gaggle of pretty Witches is portrayed in a rather black-and-white, or perhaps I should say pink-and-green, manner. Mila Kunis voices Theodora, Rachel Weisz her sister Evanora, and Michelle Williams Glinda the Good. The film almost spends more time on the three of them than on the Wizard, which is a pity, because James Franco offsets the trio with his comic facial expressions. His character is a Kansas circus magician, who specializes in flirtation and deception, and dreams of money and “greatness”. By the end of the film, he realizes he can be a better man than he gave himself credit for.

The film ends with an enjoyable climax involving the triumph of illusion (a.k.a. good old science and engineering), over “real” magic. Despite its flaws, Oz puts on a good show, and the viewer is left mostly satisfied.