And you thought the flying monkeys in the original were scary. Just wait.
Disney's “Oz The Great and Powerful” attempts to do for the big screen what “Wicked” did for the publishing world and the stage: give “The Wizard of Oz” a backstory that dovetails with the plot of the 1939 movie.
While “Wicked” frames the story from the viewpoint of the witches, “Oz” is looking over the shoulder of the wizard.
Director Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy) does a pretty good job of honoring the original movie based on L. Frank Baum's classic children's books while fully utilizing the tools since developed for dazzling special effects.
It's a fine line to tread, considering the devotion of die-hard Judy Garland or Ray Bolger fans.
Not that Dorothy or the Scarecrow are anywhere around in this story.
The movie opens in black and white, just as the 1939 version does, as con-man and magician Oz (James Franco) works the crowd at a flea-bitten carnival and breaks young girls' hearts. He's not a nice guy.
He mistreats stage assistant Frank (Zach Braff), brushes off the lovely Annie (Michelle Williams) and, in the middle of his magic act, runs from the request of a little wheelchair-bound girl in the audience (Joey King) to heal her.
Soon enough he flees the circus, only to have his hot-air balloon get caught up in a cyclone. Raimi and digital effects give him quite a wild ride.
Just as in the 1939 version, when Oz lands in, well, Oz, the movie switches to vivid color, and nothing looks plastic this time around.
He's instantly hailed as the wizard long foretold by the land's former ruler as its rescuer. Problem is, all he has are a few magician's tricks to make people believe just how great and powerful he is.
He soon finds allies in Finley, a friendly flying monkey (voice of Braff), and China Girl (voice of King), after rescuing them from wicked forces.
That brings us to the witches in the picture, and Raimi has fun for a while making us guess which one is the true wicked witch. Is it sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) or Evanora (Rachel Weisz), or the former ruler's daughter, Glynda (Michelle Williams)?
Each of them is implicated in the murder of the much-loved former ruler. Each tries to win the magician's loyalty — Theodora with love, Evanora with gold and Glynda with the need of the people.
The script nicely develops themes of making things possible by believing, both in yourself and in the world.
Franco seems perfectly cast as a flimflam artist who needs inspiration to find the goodness inside him. Weisz, Kunis and Williams are all terrific as the witches. Audiences will probably like Kunis' performance most, but watch the two others. They do wonders with the roles.
You'll also appreciate Bill Cobbs as a master tinker, Tony Cox as a prominent munchkin and Bruce Campbell as the emerald city's gatekeeper. Braff's monkey character and China Doll are total winners as well.
Visually the movie is a dazzler. But it also scores on the emotional end of things. A satisfying conclusion that includes the wizard handing out rewards will once again echo the original “Wizard of Oz.”
Just one caution: The scary bits — warring witches, nasty monkeys — are pretty intense. Not sure I'd take kids whose ages are single digits, and definitely not preschoolers.
Otherwise this gets a hearty thumbs-up as a fun family outing.
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