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Oz the Great and Powerful Movie Review

Oz the Great and Powerful Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy cover art
Oz the Great and Powerful is now available on home video. Click here to read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack.

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) movie poster Oz the Great and Powerful

Theatrical Release: March 8, 2013 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Sam Raimi / Writers: Mitchell Kapner (screen story & screenplay); David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay); L. Frank Baum (works)

Cast: James Franco (Oscar "Oz" Diggs), Mila Kunis (Theodora/Wicked Witch of the West), Rachel Weisz (Evanora), Michelle Williams (Annie/Glinda), Zach Braff (Frank/voice of Finley), Bill Cobbs (Master Tinker), Joey King (Girl in Wheelchair/China Girl), Tony Cox (Knuck), Stephen R. Hart (Winkie General), Abigail Leigh Spencer (May), Bruce Campbell (Winkie Gate Keeper), Ted Raimi (Skeptic in Audience), Tim Holmes (Strongman)

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Back when Disney made plain old movies, they would use early March to open a comedy with broad appeal and commercial potential. Even if the reviews weren't good (and they often were not), films like Jungle 2 Jungle, The Pacifier, and Touchstone's Wild Hogs could be counted on to drum up some business. Now that Disney is in the business of tentpoles and brands, they use the first or second Friday of March to debut the biggest film of the year so far.
Films with budgets of $200 million or more that historically would have been timed to the busiest moviegoing seasons (summer, Thanksgiving Eve, or Christmas week) now arrive at the end of winter, facing lighter competition. The strategy seemed to work wonders in 2010, when Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland became the first really big post-Avatar hit and one of just a handful of movies to gross $1 billion worldwide. Last year brought a performance even more historic, albeit in the opposite direction, in the costly sci-fi epic flop John Carter.

Oz the Great and Powerful, this March's effects-laden Disney extravaganza, arrives in the same mold with an accomplished director (Sam Raimi, who helmed Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man trilogy and the Evil Dead series long before that), a hefty price tag (kept down, with some effort, to $200 M, with another $100 M being spent on marketing), and a familiar title. The film's ad campaign bears a striking resemblance to Alice, down to poster color schemes and layouts, and that is obviously the film whose results the studio would like to recreate. There is a chance, however, that Oz could play more like John Carter, although that film, which ultimately warranted a $200 M write-down, seemed more destined to fail, its amorphous marketing campaign, high-profile personnel switches, and title change revealing doubts and raising obvious questions about the material's drawing power.

Oz has its own challenge to face in the fact that aside from MGM's 1939 Technicolor musical The Wizard of Oz, one of the most widely-seen and beloved films of all time, Hollywood has not been able to make the universe of L. Frank Baum's novels the subject of captivating must-see cinema. Disney ought to know that as well as anyone else. Though fairly well regarded today, their 1985 sequel Return to Oz was a bust in theaters. The 2005 ABC telemovie The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is considered the rock-bottom that Jim Henson's lovable characters hit before being restored to glory in 2011's winning film. Other incarnations, from stage and screen's The Wiz to the $60 M CG-animated feature Dorothy of Oz that has been "coming soon" for years, have produced or will produce their detractors, unquestionably being judged against the magic and marvels of the iconic, enduring Judy Garland film.

Oz (James Franco) explains to the China Girl they must part ways, so that he can enter the Dark Forest.

Disney's new Oz is a prequel, showing us the young adult adventures of the man who will become Oz's wizard. While Baum's writings are credited,
the screenplay by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Rise of the Guardians) is largely its own original entity, one modeled as much on the Garland film as anything else.

The connections are obvious from the start. Oz opens in 1905 Kansas in black & white Academy Ratio, which aside from The Artist, we haven't seen used in a long time. Raimi sustains those designs (complete with mono sound) for at least ten minutes, a bold, daring, and fitting choice for something inevitably designed to be colorful eye candy. (Will anyone be ignorant enough to leave the theater to complain?) Oscar Diggs (James Franco), known simply as Oz, is a carnival magician, a charming con man with a history of wooing young assistants with music boxes passed off as heirlooms of his war veteran grandmother. Aided by a mutton-chopped behind-the-scenes sidekick (Zach Braff, who it's nice to see, no matter how briefly), Oz puts on a good show, convincing his skeptical audience he can levitate a simple country girl before their very eyes.

The storm a-comin' starts not with inclement weather but a strongman irate with Oz for his undiscerning seduction. Oz makes a narrow escape in a hot air balloon, at which point the skies darken and winds howl, the perfect conditions for entering the land of Oz. The magician does so, his arrival naturally announced with the introduction of vibrant colors and a showy expansion to the wider of today's two standard aspect ratios. Oz the man is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), a pretty young woman he can't believe is a witch, and some toothy river fairies. Theodora explains to the newcomer of the prophecy he is apparently fulfilling, a salvation scenario Oz goes along with, merely to impress his female company. Theodora escorts Oz to the Emerald City, where he tries out the throne he is to fill and Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is eager to cater to his needs. The siblings explain that Oz is to kill a wicked witch to become king and inherit the jaw-dropping riches he can't resist swimming in.

No fantastic mission would be complete without some sidekicks, so Oz picks up two. First, he rescues Finley, a talking, flying monkey in a bellhop costume who pledges lifelong servitude. Voiced by Braff in one of the obvious double roles and rendered in state-of-the-art CGI, Finley scores many of the film's biggest laughs. He and Oz are soon joined by a china doll (voiced by Joey King, who is earlier seen as a disabled carnival spectator), the sole survivor of a massacre whose broken legs Oz reattaches with glue. The trio is supposed to track down a wicked witch and steal her wand, but instead they happen upon Glinda (Michelle Williams, also appearing in the prologue), who sets them straight on some misinformation they have.

Theodora (Mila Kunis) is the first witch Oz (James Franco) meets in the land bearing his name. As in the classic MGM film, Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) travels by bubble.

Oz will obviously be compared to Burton's Alice in Wonderland and that is a comparison from which it can emerge victoriously. Raimi's film plays just as freely with the details of Baum's stories as Burton's did with Lewis Carroll's, but at least here the invented whimsy adds up to something coherent and compelling. Having reviewed the miniseries The Witches of Oz last spring, I am well aware how easy it is to take something as purely enchanting as Baum's fantasy and turn it into a dreadful mess. Maybe diehards and protective purists, those who object to even the long-accepted liberties that the MGM musical takes, will feel that way about this. Judged on its own, however, as pricey spectacle cinema, this new Oz is quite all right, entertaining with its clever storytelling, tasteful parallels, and agreeable spirit.

You don't expect any less than that from Raimi, whose record-setting Spider-Man trilogy put more fun into the superhero movie than anything else between 1978's Superman and The Avengers. Raimi and his competent crew, which includes composer Danny Elfman (patching up a decade-old rift with the director), cinematographer Peter Deming (The Cabin in the Woods, Mulholland Drive, and Mike Myers comedies), make-up effects artists from The Chronicles of Narnia and visual effects veterans of Marvel hits, deliver a film that is lively, polished, and picturesque,

even as it relies heavily on CGI for scope and illusions. That could get the Academy Awards to stretch their memory come next winter (remember, Burton's Alice was nominated for three Oscars, of which it won two). More importantly, the dynamite visuals aren't asked to carry the movie; the dazzling style (enhanced, of course, for 3D) always serves a story that is sufficiently engaging in the hands of actors as capable as Franco and Williams.

Will Oz contribute to the box office slump that has plagued virtually all of 2013's releases so far or will it start a strong new year for Disney as the studio's first new in-house production to open in four months? I suspect the answer lies in the vast chasm between Alice and John Carter. Franco's drawing power as leading man is largely unproven and I don't see much in the film to appease young viewers. But it is a good movie, told in an exciting way and that has to count for something, especially when tied to such a well-known quantity. It should help that Oz has two full weeks of featherweight competition, the kind of marketplace that has pushed even an underadvertised generic animated family film like Escape from Planet Earth into slight profitability. Whether or not the gambles of Oz pay off, Disney might want to reconsider its strategy of a slate small in number and great in cost. Maybe they already are; as of now, with 2014's schedule relatively firmly in place, no release will claim next year's early March window.

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Related Reviews:
Oz the Great and Powerful (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Return to Oz The Muppets' Wizard of Oz The Witches of Oz | Directed by Sam Raimi: Spider-Man Spider-Man 2 Spider-Man 3
Disney March Tentpoles: Alice in Wonderland (2010) John Carter | Written by David Lindsay-Abaire: Rise of the Guardians Inkheart
2013 Films: Beautiful Creatures Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Gangster Squad
Witches: Hocus Pocus Stardust Enchanted Once Upon a Time: The Complete First Season
James Franco: 127 Hours Rise of the Planet of the Apes Annapolis Date Night | Michelle Williams: My Week with Marilyn Blue Valentine
Mila Kunis: That '70s Show: Season One Black Swan | Rachel Weisz: Fred Claus | Zach Braff: Scrubs: The Complete First Season Chicken Little

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Reviewed March 8, 2013.

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