‘Oz’ a fun jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road

Article Published: Mar. 13, 2013 | Modified: Mar. 13, 2013
‘Oz’ a fun jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road

James Franco stars in 'Oz the Great and Powerful.'

In his latest film, director Sam Raimi takes us back to Oz.

And for those wondering, no, he’s not taking us back to HBO’s brutal and often terrifying prison drama of the same name.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” returns us to the fantastic world of L. Frank Baum, the man behind the curtain, who penned a series of tales that would inspire one of cinema’s most beloved movies of all time, 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The Wizard of Oz,” however, is a sacred cow, and the very thought of remaking or “reimagining” this landmark film could easily seem like sacrilege to some. Fortunately, legalese is on their side.

With Warner Bros. owning the rights to the 1939 classic, other studios are legally forbidden from reproducing the film’s depictions of Baum’s work. In other words, no one is technically remaking “The Wizard of Oz.”

Instead, studios are turning toward the source material, which is open game, and depicting it in their own original manner. Enter Raimi (“Army of Darkness”), who brings his trademark wit and dark humor to a story inspired by Baum’s timeless tales, and a prequel to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

James Franco (“127 Hours”) is Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a sideshow magician at a traveling circus in 1905 Kansas. Although his act, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” portrays him as a mighty wizard, his lack of any true power to change the world only causes him to reflect on his mediocrity.

He’d like to emulate Thomas Edison, a modern wizard in his own right, but, in actuality, Oz is nothing more than a flimflam man.

All of this changes, though, when Oz – while escaping in a hot-air balloon from a cuckolded circus strong man – is whisked away by a tornado into the magical (and coincidentally named) Land of Oz.

Despite its vibrant landscape and curious creatures, it’s a land threatened by conflict. A certain wicked witch, Evanora (Rachel Weisz, “The Fountain”), is eyeing the throne vacated by her late father, and the arrival of Oz in Oz seems to follow a hallowed prophecy, in that a mighty wizard of the same name will come from afar to defeat the wicked witch and bring peace to the land in his rule.

Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to gain some fame and unfathomable riches, Oz embarks on what he sees as his biggest con yet.

Along the way, he encounters a variety of memorable characters new and old, including Finley the Flying Monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, TV’s “Scrubs”), China Girl (literally a tiny girl made of porcelain, voiced by Joey King, “Ramona and Beezus”) and Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams, “Blue Valentine”), all of whom parallel Oz’s acquaintances from Kansas.

Whereas he was less than kind to their Kansas counterparts, in the Land of Oz, he just might find the goodness in his heart to make a difference in their lives – and his.

Raimi and company deliver a solid story that embraces Baum’s world, rather than darkly “reimagine” it, a la Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” There are some dark elements, as to be expected, but the filmmakers thankfully steer clear of the trend du jour, instead producing a fun and enjoyable jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road.

The setting is utterly vibrant and rich in color, but, to its detriment, the computer-generated environment sometimes looks a little too cartoonish for its own good. The CGI characters, however, are remarkably rendered, almost to the point of tangibility, particularly with Finley and China Girl.

The 3-D treatment is also masterfully done, with some of the best effects to date. Most of the effects help to immerse viewers in this wondrous environment, but others pander to the 3-D fad of objects and creatures leaping out at the audience – scenes that won’t have the same effect on 2-D screens, thus lowering the film’s rewatchability.

Fortunately, however, there’s still plenty to see – and enjoy. “Oz the Great and Powerful” throws in plenty of loving references to “Wizard,” and Raimi wisely (both creatively and legally) doesn’t step on any toes. He deftly sidesteps any of those pitfalls by creating a path of his own. It just happens to be paved with yellow bricks.

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” rated PG for sequences of action, scary images and brief mild language, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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