March 14, 2013

'Oz' undeniably entertaining, imaginative


---- — “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic of American cinema — though, frankly, with all that singing and dancing there’s almost no chance that it would have been made in 2013.

This week’s prequel, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” will not be a classic remembered 70 years from now, but it’s undeniably entertaining and fits in nicely with the Oz mythos, though without most of that song and dance.

Set some 30 years before Dorothy’s adventures, “Oz the Great and Powerful” begins, as did the original, in a Kansas that is black-and-white (that state has to get a better publicist).

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, nicknamed Oz, a two-bit circus magician who has an eye for the ladies.

Oz soon finds himself in a hot-air balloon that gets caught in a tornado, and as we all know, Kansas tornadoes end in the magical, colorful world of Oz.

The con man immediately meets a beautiful young witch — in this Oz, all the witches, even the evil ones, are gorgeous, played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. His appearance, it seems, fulfills the prophecy that a great wizard will appear from the sky to rule the kingdom and kill the wicked witch … not necessarily in that order.

Oz is a cad and a fraud, though eventually you know that he will prove his worth. Franco is satisfactory in the role, though his CGI companions actually steal much of the show. Instead of a lion, scarecrow and tin man, he shares his adventures with an adorable china doll and a cute flying monkey (voice of Zach Braff).

Yes, that’s right, the nightmarish soaring simians of my youthful nightmares have been transformed into a cute sidekick. Never fear, however, there are malevolent flying baboons to cause new nightmares.

Directed by Sam Raimi, “Oz” makes good use of CGI and 3-D. The story is imaginative, though it doesn’t make a lot of emotional impact, and the sense of wonder from the original film is missing.

Still, “Oz the Great and Powerful” should be satisfactory to the old generation who loved the classic film, as well as the new generation that’s just discovering it.

Rental Recommendation: People forget that there was already an Oz sequel: Disney’s poorly-received “Return to Oz” in 1985. It’s a little weird and creepy — hey, shock therapy for Dorothy! — but not bad, and fairly true to the spirit of the books. Grade: B-

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"Oz the Great and Powerful"

Grade: B+

Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis

Rated: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)

Running time: 130 minutes