Without question, there's a huge, winged monkey on the back of director Sam Raimi and his "Wizard of Oz" prequel "Oz the Great and Powerful." But in a courageous stroke of brilliance, the "Spider-Man" filmmaker has swatted any doubts away with his unique vision of the Land of Oz and the yellow brick road.
Big and vibrant, visually stunning, full of humor and heart, and yes, even frightening at times, "Oz" still may not match up to its classic predecessor from 1939 (what film possibly could?) -- but for what it is, the film meets its monolithic expectations.
A prequel to the classic film that's based on the "Oz" stories by L. Frank Baum, "The Great and Powerful" tracks the origins of Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a traveling circus magician and professional huckster who always looks out for himself -- that is until he's swept away in a hot-air balloon into a dust storm (and an appropriately authentic black-and-white opening), landing in the eye-popping environs of the mystical land that strangely bears his name.
Among the citizens of Oz are three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) who all want to believe Oscar's arrival there is preordained and he's there to save them from an evil force, yet get the feeling that the magician is just an opportunist. Their attitudes begin to change, however, when Oscar is put to the test of putting others before himself, and wondering if he has what it takes to be the wonderful Wizard of Oz.
See my review on KARE-TV below.
Painting one of the most impressive pictures of a big-screen fantasyland in the last year, Raimi has a handle on what he wants in "Oz the Great and Powerful," right from the dizzying opening title sequence that immediately puts to proper use the over-used and most-often failing medium of 3D. Here the third dimension works beautifully, as the director uses it not only for depth, but for all its gimmicky glory, as fireworks shoot of the screen and various objects appear to floating right in front of your eyes.
The acting in the film is as good as to be expected, even though none of its celebrated cast really give deep, introspective performances. Under the direction of Raimi, the actors are clearly trying to capture a feeling -- and it's either of innocent, hunky dory movie types, or just straight-up, wicked villains. Essentially, they play their roles as such as if they were actors in 1939, and from that perspective, they fit the bill perfectly.
The characters put furthest on the limb are the ones brought to life through motion capture: Finley (Zach Braff), Oscar's winged monkey assistant, and China Girl (Joey King), a living porcelain doll who brings a great deal of heart to the film. The performances are two shining examples of the film's great balance between its characters and fantastic special effects.
While rated PG, "Oz the Great and Powerful," like "The Wizard of Oz," has its share of frightening moments, and it's a relief that Raimi didn't pull back on the harnesses of his winged baboons to not frighten any potential audience members. To go soft would have been doing Baum's and the original "Oz" film's legacy a disservice.
After all, this is a film for kids of all ages, in particular the ones who were, yes, frightened by those same winged monkeys growing up. The wicked witches are, well, wicked, too, and in one case, in her cursed state, reminds you of the deadite witch that Raimi's pal, Bruce Campbell (who appears in "Oz" in a cameo), fended off at the end of their classic horror comedy "Army of Darkness."
While "Oz the Great and Powerful" ventures into dark territory, it's an exhilarating ride nonetheless. From a soul-stirring standpoint, the movie doesn't have a "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" song moment that will instantly bring you to tears, but you should still get ready for those 3D to get steamed up during a touching scene near the conclusion of the film.
If "Oz the Great and Powerful" proves anything, it's that there's still no place like home. For us moviegoers, it's a movie home called "Oz," and it remains a wonderful place to travel to for a couple of fresh, fantasy-filled hours.
"Oz the Great and Powerful," rated PG. 3 1/2 stars out of 4.
See the trailer for "Oz the Great and Powerful" below.
What other local critics are saying ...
Colin Covert of the Star Tribune gives the film 3 1/2 stars out of four, calling it "a lollapalooza of funhouse thrills and visually sumptuous filmmaking," and says Franco "suits the Wizard to a tee."
Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press was left deflated by the man who played Oz, saying Franco was miscast as the Wizard. He gives the film 2 stars out of four.
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed more than 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.