Wednesday, March 13, 2013


How did the Witch of the West get so wicked? If you know Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked, or the stage musical, you know one version of the story of the magical land of Oz before Dorothy touched down in her flying house.

And now that the Disney corporation is buying up the rights to every fantasy property ever conceived (from the Pixar animation studio to the Star Wars universe), it's offering its own take on the material in the lavish Oz the Great and Powerful, which imagines the witches and the wizard of Oz in their heedless youth.

Directed by Sam Raimi from a script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, the film is a prequel to L. Frank Baum's classic novel, and the beloved 1939 MGM movie. The mood and texture of Raimi's film, along with the extravagant production design by Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland; Avatar) are heavily influenced by the earlier Oz film.

Despite some slow-going in the script, some dubious plotting, and an unresolved strain of moral ambiguity, the cheeky dash of Raimi's film, and its obvious affection for its source, makes for a mostly entertaining trip down the yellow brick road.

Once again, we begin in drab, black-and-white Kansas, ca. 1905. Oscar Diggs, called "Oz" (James Franco), is a stage magician in a cheesy traveling carnival. His tricks are all flash powder and illusion, but he delivers the thrills onstage; more fraudulent are his cavalier seductions of women, while his brusque treatment of his assistant (Zach Braff) suggests a mean streak. Being "good" doesn't interest Oz as much as his hopes to one day do something great.

Like Dorothy, he's swept up in a twister which deposits his hot air balloon in the vibrantly colored landscape of Oz. (Why does he have the same name as the magical place? Um, who knows, it's never explained.)

He's soon having close encounters with three sisters who are definitely not your father's witches: lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), the equally ravishing Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the radiant Glinda (Michelle Williams.)
Which witch becomes the woman scorned?
 The good vs great theme is hammered home a tad too often, and some long, talky stretches would require more than Franco's toothy grin to keep the audience invested. The various witches' powers tend to come and go at the whims of the plot (with Glinda often completely helpless).

And while it's interesting that a woman scorned by the feckless Oz becomes the heartless, green-skinned Fury we all know as the Wicked Witch, he never has to atone for it in any satisfying way. He may go over the rainbow, but his superficial character never takes enough of a journey.

Still, much is redeemed in the finale; instead of the expected bloody battle, Oz employs all the various non-warrior peoples of the land to build massive stage illusions to drive out the evildoers. There's a fun steampunk feel to the creation and manipulation of these devices. (Read complete review)

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