Review: ‘Oz' a colorful, entertaining work of cinema wizardry


(Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 5:53 p.m.

The actor carrying the title role couldn't carry the Oscars as a co-host. The director gave us the “Spider-Man” trilogy, then essentially disappeared for six years. It's a prequel to one of the most beloved movies of all time. And yet, despite all the elements seemingly stacked against it, “Oz the Great and Powerful” works. It isn't an all-time classic like its predecessor, but it's visually imaginative, tells a solid story and contains a good mix of comedy and thrills.

Facts

‘Oz the Great and Powerful'

Rated: PG
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
★★★

There's almost certain to be much gushing praise of the movie's visuals, and deservedly so. The art direction, production design and cinematography are top-notch; the colors are bright and vivid without searing the eyes, and the sheer variety of creatures, plants and settings is staggering. That said, it's too bad that the 3-D darkens everything (as 3-D often does). A world this remarkable deserves to be seen in all its glory, so if you go see “Oz,” see it in 2-D.

As far as the story goes, in Kansas in 1905, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a stage magician in what could be charitably described as a run-down traveling circus. Diggs is a hack and a con man, and he knows it. But he dreams of finding a way out of his situation, and he thinks he has the charm and showmanship to bluff his way to the top.

After running afoul of some of his circus cohorts, Diggs escapes in a hot air balloon and is whisked away via tornado to the land of Oz. (What is it with tornadoes in Kansas?) There he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (a supremely icy Rachel Weisz), a pair of witches who think Oscar is a wizard prophesied to rescue Oz from the Wicked Witch. Evanora promises him a crown and untold riches if he can kill Glinda (Michelle Williams), the supposed Wicked Witch. However, Evanora — and later, Theodora — is actually the evil one, and Oscar ends up leading a rebellion against her tyrannical rule with Glinda's help.

When the movie focuses on Oscar's journey through Oz and his stuttered steps toward becoming a hero, the movie flows nicely. Director Sam Raimi is one of the best in the business at juggling tones, and he deftly balances comedy and action against smaller character moments showing Oscar's transformation. When the focus shifts to the greater battle for the rule of Oz, though, things slow to a crawl. The power struggle between the three witches is needlessly overcomplicated, and there are a few too many supporting characters in the mix.

The great cast prevents the movie from floundering too much at any given point, though. The standout is Franco, who wholeheartedly embraces playing a man who is himself playing at being a hero. His gradual turn from selfish to selfless is fun to watch, and he makes it very credible.

There is, however, an elephant in the room: the movie's sexual politics regarding the witches are troublesome. Glinda the good witch is entirely passive, waiting for Oscar — a man — to step up and do the heavy work of saving the kingdom. On the other hand, Evanora is all action and aggression, but she's the evil one. Even more problematic is Theodora, whose entire character arc is shaped by and dependent on the actions of others (she even becomes ugly when she turns evil and stops being passive). The movie punishes women for being forceful and asserting themselves, a rather retrograde notion in this supposedly enlightened era. Whether that's a deal-breaker depends on one's personal beliefs with regard to feminism.

Aside from the movie's feminist issues, “Oz” is a lot of fun. It's refreshing to see a movie that could've been a crass cash grab try to do more, even if it stumbles on occasion. Those who follow the Yellow Brick Road again to Oz will not come away disappointed.

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