Yellow brick road returns
By CHRISTOPHER LAWRENCE
Las Vegas Review-Journal
The vibrant colors. The terrifyingly aggressive plant life. The talking winged monkey dressed like a tiny bellhop.
This must be what it’s like to get high with James Franco.
From the opening minutes of “Oz The Great and Powerful” …
Sarcasm powers. Not working.
Of all the illusions conjured up by Disney’s “Wizard of Oz” prequel, which credits magician Lance Burton as a consultant, its greatest bit of magic is its ability to cut through years of jadedness and rot to tickle the 8-year-old inside you.
Or something that sounds less creepy.
Womanizing huckster Oscar Diggs (Franco) ekes out a living by conning yokels — with the help of his put-upon assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), who’s good for some vaudeville-style yuks — as a magician with the charmingly low-rent Baum Bros. Circus.
When he’s visited by his childhood sweetheart, Annie (Michelle Williams), who’s come to tell him a good man has asked to marry her, Oz doesn’t put up a fight. After all, he doesn’t want to be a good man. He dreams of being a great man. “Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison, all rolled into one.”
After Oz is nearly run out of town for seemingly refusing to heal a crippled farm girl (Joey King), he escapes the clutches of a jealous strongman by fleeing in a hot-air balloon and catches a ride on Kansas’ most famous public transit system: the tornado.
When Oz the man finds himself in Oz the land, he’s beset by wondrous landscapes, river fairies and the most magical creature of all: Mila Kunis.
Her young, floppy-hatted witch, Theodora — who looks as if she’s about to board the Titanic en route to the Kentucky Derby — is convinced Oz is the long-prophesied wizard who’ll save the kingdom from the Wicked Witch.
Since that position comes with the land’s untold treasures — including the mountains of gold coins on which he goes all Scrooge McDuck — Oz, ever the con man, is more than happy to go along.
As Oz, Franco plays to the cheap seats throughout, mugging and hamming things up at every turn. He didn’t even bother to shave off his pencil-thin goatee. But something about his sleepy-eyed charisma just feels spot-on.
It wouldn’t be an “Oz” tale if Theodora were the only witch in town. Her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), rules the Emerald City and is immediately distrustful of Oz’s wizardly claims. And Williams is simply radiant in her other role as Glinda, the Good Witch.
Much like in “The Wizard of Oz,” other actors exist in both worlds.
Braff voices Oz’s sidekick, Finley, the bellhop monkey. (Not to be confused with the hideous flying baboons that could scare the bejeezus out of little ones.) The two seem forever on the verge of breaking into an Abbott and Costello routine.
And the young actress King gives voice to the China Doll, a similarly broken character, who just may be the most achingly adorable creation you encounter all year.
Since the movie follows Oz’s journey to becoming the wizard he claims to be, the outcome is never in doubt. But there are enough (s)witcheroos along the way to keep viewers guessing.
Working from a script by Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rise of the Guardians”), director Sam Raimi does his best Tim Burton impression, down to the inventive opening credits and Danny Elfman’s score. But, despite Raimi’s experiences helming the “Spider-Man” and “Evil Dead” trilogies, the visuals sometimes get away from him. It’s a little too easy, for instance, to imagine Franco jogging in place in front of a green screen.
“Oz The Great and Powerful” contains enough homages and callbacks to tie it to the original without seeming overly cute or heavy-handed.
But while it obviously can’t live up to the 1939 classic, it’s closer to a welcome companion piece than the desperate cash grab fans may have feared.
Still, it’s a little troubling that with this movie — following its acquisitions of Marvel, The Muppets and “Star Wars,” not to mention its own characters — Disney has laid claim to roughly 98 percent of your childhood memories.
It’s likely only a matter of time before the company comes for your little dog, too.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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