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This Oz isn’t great and powerful – it’s more like grate and pictorial.

A Wizard’s Journey

Good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams)
Good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams)

Make no mistake about it, Oz the Great and Powerful is not a remake of The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 Judy Garland classic. As the opening credits say, this one’s “based on the works of” L. Frank Baum, who wrote 14 books about the wonderful, marvelous, magical world of Oz.

While there’s no Dorothy, Tin Man, Lion, or Scarecrow, this Oz certainly pays homage to that original movie placed somewhere over the rainbow. The references begin immediately as Oz the Great and Powerful opens in black-and-white and with the old-school 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The good news is that director Sam Raimi, known for his Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies, fills each frame from beginning to end with marvelous visuals. Those terrific images carry the movie even when the story meanders and feels flat.

Like Life of Pi, there’s some nifty 3D trickery on tap. Oz boasts some of the best 3D effects yet and Raimi understands the attraction of 3D. Finally! A director who doesn’t shy away from the primal, innate joys of 3D: in-your-face effects courtesy of arrows and gremlin spit. The audience moves, jolts, and gasps in reaction. That’s precisely what’s supposed to happen.

Oz also takes a very subtle off-frame effect used in Life of Pi to a whole new level during those opening 1.33:1 scenes. Elements float out of the frame, across the black screen, and into the audience. Nicely done indeed, Mr. Raimi. And the protagonist’s entry into the colorful land of Oz feels like a mainstream rendition of a Disney theme park ride – Caption EO, perhaps.

The Wizard of Menlo Park

As for that protagonist, he’s burdened with a ridiculously long name, such just call him Oscar. Better yet, call him Oz (James Franco, 127 Hours and Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy). Franco’s put in a tough spot. His character isn’t all that likable, particularly on the first introduction.

Oz is a classic carney huckster who seduces women with a music box previously owned by his grandmother, who “died in battle.” There are a lot of those music boxes floating around out there. He’s not a nice man; not only is he a user of women, he belittles his assistant and calls him a trained monkey.

Much like Dorothy’s journey down the yellow brick road, Oz’s journey to… um… Oz is one of self-discovery and personal reinvention. As it happens, Oz meets a real trained monkey, stylishly decked out in an early-1900s bellhop uniform, named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff, TV’s Scrubs). He also meets a china doll with two broken legs (voiced by Joey King, The Dark Knight Rises), an eerie reminder of a girl Oz met in Kansas who was so awestruck buy his two-bit magic she was convinced he could make her walk.

And then there’s Glinda (Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn), she’s a good witch who bears a striking resemblance to Oz’s real-life love back home.

Together, the magician, the monkey, the doll, and the witch set off on a quest to rid the Emerald City of its witch problem. There’s a nasty one terrorizing the inhabitants and she has a sister who might be able to out-evil her.

The Wizard of Blahs

Oz the Great and Powerful has plenty going for it. The cast is terrific, particularly Michelle Williams; she tends to give her characters, quirky or fanciful as they may be, such a dose of reality she can sell anything as an actress. And there are those wonderfully wicked witches, Evanora (Rachel Weisz, The Mummy) and Theodora (Mila Kunis, Black Swan). Both are stunningly beautiful, at least in the beginning, before their true selves are revealed.

Franco is also good, but it’s a good with some odd degree of reservation. His character is decidedly grating at first but by the end of it all, Franco still seems a little out of sorts while his character has found a whole new life in Oz. Similar to The Wizard of Oz, there’s a gift-giving scene at the end but this time it is garishly off key. Michelle Williams can sell anything; Franco can’t quite sell redemption.

The elements are all there. Oz wants to be the next Thomas Edison. He wants to make real magic, he wants to be a legend. Oz wants to make the wonderful denizens of Oz believe. Man that sounds cool. It’s a great ambition; it’s something that should make Oz sympathetic, but somehow that significant aspiration, even as it manifests itself in Oz’s grand scheme to restore freedom to the Emerald City, falls rather flat. While the third act is fun, it’s more mechanical than magical.

Even though all the pieces don’t quite fall into place, this return journey to the world of Oz settles in as a moderately satisfying one. Nonetheless, as the yellow brick road fades away in the rearview mirror, there’s a nagging feeling that a great and powerful movie is buried in there, somewhere under the rainbow.