Movie: Oz the Great and Powerful; Director: Sam Raimi; Studio: Walt Disney Pictures; Rated: PG; Flint's finding: 3 out of five stars.
Oz is a glorious place in director Sam Raimi's vision.
From the very opening scene, which harkens to the Victor Fleming classic by taking place in black-and-white and 4:3 aspect ratio, there is a whimsy apparent that feels magical. The opening credits are performed as though walking through a carnival funhouse, with sticks and strings supporting the names and text, and constantly whirring and spinning walls to somewhat hypnotize us and take us back to the beauty of the mechanical age (albeit completely reliant on technology of the digital age to do so).
Yes, the "Great and Powerful Oz" is nothing more than a common circus side-show magician, touring through his home state of Kansas at the moment to perform the same tired routines he's performed year after year. His interest, you see, isn't on the "Great and Powerful" part so much as it is on bedding his constant succession of dumb but comely assistants. Just like his act, which consists of basic yet highly polished slight-of-hand and a very impressive levitation routine, in which he not only levitates an assistant without the use of string (apparently) but also makes her disappear under a sheet of silk. He pursues these impressionable girls looking for fame in the same way every time. His grandmother, the old war hero, was obliterated in some fake war in some fake eastern European country but all that remains is a dusty old music box. And he wants you - though he just met you - to have it, and his grandmother would, too.
It's the music boxes the supplier of which would be a good company to invest in, had Oz stayed on earth to continue his shenanigans that get him into a little trouble in Kansas. Apparently a former assistant of his had received a music box, but that wasn't much to the liking of the strongman and his crony, the sad clown. With muscles bulging, the strongman chases Oz down only to be hoodwinked by some fast magic on Oz's part through a trap door in his train car.
Thinking quickly - for it's wit and not greatness that Oz gets by on - he climbs up to the basket of a hot-air balloon and gets whisked away by a tornado to the magical land of Oz - in full, popping color and widescreen format. The 3-D presentation may come in handy here, if your idea of a family fantasy movie involves cracking wood being hurtled in spikes toward your face as it tears apart the balloon basket.
Upon reaching the land of Oz, the magician Oz has very little time to appreciate the oversized buttercups or flowers made out of gems in the technicolor world. He's greeted by Theodora, a witch played by Mila Kunis, who warns him that the bad witch has sent her minions - menacing flying baboons - to get rid of him. He is, she tells him, the prophesized Wizard who was to fall from the sky to save the land of Oz from the evil witches.
That's basically the plotline. A con man from Kansas with nothing on his mind other than riches and power because if he defeats the evil witch he will become king and will inherit all the gold that the position holds he has to convince Theodora and her sister Evanora that he is, indeed, the Wizard they all have waited for.
The first problem with the film is James Franco. He's been a decent actor for a while now, but if this is all the effort he puts into holding a blockbuster film on his shoulders, more roles of this size are not likely to come to him. There's a certain lack of respect or recognition of importance with Franco, as evidenced by his performance as co-host of the Academy Awards ceremony
a few years ago and evidenced in the same way here. When a scene calls for anything more than ironic posturing, showing that he doesn't care, Franco is either likely to start grinning and squinting or to furrow his brow to give a false sense of seriousness.
An early speech he gave in his car at the circus left me wondering why another take hadn't been used. If that were the state of all leading-man acting found today then there would be absolutely no point to ever go to the movies.
Luckily, there are sidekicks involved. Sidekicks are perfect whenever a hero - or anti-hero in this case - lacks enough substance or integrity for the role required, and they need a foil to distract and awe the audience. Here, there is a lackey named Finley, who is a monkey with wings (who seems to be the only one of his species in Oz, and nothing is ever mentioned that the baddies are baboons with wings or how Finley feels about this). Finley's life was saved by magician Oz early in the film to impress Theodora. Despite being voiced by Zach Braff (of TV's "Scrubs"), who is an unapologetic man-child and irritates me to no end, Finley is one of the two best characters because without the smug man-child face involved with the man-child voice, Braff is easier to ignore.
The other best character is the China Girl, who was also saved by Oz with "magic in a bottle" - also known as glue. You see, the girl is literally made out of china and her legs were smashed to bits as the flying baboons ransacked her village at the request of the evil witch. The China Girl reflects the changing attitude of Oz, because she was first seen as a wheelchair-bound girl who begged Oz to save her with his magic in Kansas.
You see, though he lacks the physical magic the witches actually wield, like fireballs or green-electric rays, he may very well be the Wizard Oz was looking for. This is a family film, after all, so goodness must triumph and men must grow into their potential. The fact that Franco can't adequately express this change is certainly a minor fault, but the remainder of the film is fantastic popcorn entertainment.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)