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. "Oz the Great and Powerful"

Oh, Oz, we hardly knew ya'. Sam Raimi, a director not unknown to worlds of darkness, evil spells and hero transformations ("Spider-Man," "Darkman," "Drag me to Hell"), with a script based on L. Frank Baum's re-imagining of 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" scripted by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire shows us how to pull off the start of a fantasy franchise with a shaky prequel to a classic.

Would that the casting was as consistently amazing as the set, costume designs, 3-D CGI effects and just about everything we call the technical side. I'll get to that part in a minute, so don't go away. There's much to say about this grandiose piece of magic that doesn't seem long for its 130 minutes. Meaning, it's going to leave you wanting more.

In a black, white and grey prologue, we acquire a distaste for circus huckster/magician/lecher Oscar Diggs (James Franco), aka Oz. The lack of color is a photographic device that works to set up this ungenerous con man who takes advantage of everyone he can. He verbally and unfairly lashes his devoted assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and, in a whole other way, abuses any young thing he can talk into his dressing room.

Prophetically, after one of his performances, a teenage girl in a wheelchair (Joey King, "The Dark Knight Rises"), mesmerized by his magic tricks, implores him to use it to help her heal. His response is callous and unfeeling. He doesn't help people; they help him.

When Oscar narrowly escapes in a hot-air balloon from the wrath of an angry circus father whose daughter Oz took advantage of, he's caught in a tornado that drops him into another world. That world has the same name as his. Oz. Where his destiny lies.

In this moment, the screen widens, the greys morph into golden colors, and the adventure along the yellow brick road begins. But it must be said that our anti-hero hasn't left his true nature behind.

In the Whimsie Woods, Oz makes first contact with Theodora (Mila Kunis), the witch with a ring that allows her to throw fireballs). Having seen his arrival via balloon, she takes him for the long awaited Great Wizard. She's quick to assume his role as king and ruler, and herself his queen, before happily presenting him to the citizens of Oz. As for Oscar, he thinks he's finally got a grip on the gold ring.

He finds the people of Oz peaceful but in great fear of the wicked witch. A prophesy has given them hope that a Great Wizard will one day arrive to deal with her and to keep them safe and dispel their fears. And, it seems to most of the Ozians that Theodora's words are true. Oscar fills the bill, and none too soon.

Which of the three sisters is the wicked one isn't yet known to us. Besides the fair Theodora, there are Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and blond, lovely Glinda (Michelle Williams, left) whose wand allows her to transport people. All the main characters from the circus on a Kansas flatland begin to appear with new identities in this lush new world, and Annie looks an awful lot like Annie, the former sweetheart whom he has jilted.

Dorothy, of the "Wizard of Oz," isn't here and ain't coming.

The citizenry includes a group of elderly men known as Tinkers (named after the inventor who co-created a ladder so tall that he could rest it against the moon). They are inventers and architects, "tradesmen," who can build anything in this time of Thomas Edison's new invention of electricity and the moving picture. Another Ozian demographic consists of the Munchkins, a band of small people with undending energy, guts and deep loyalty.

But the two other witches aren't here. Evanora is in the Emerald City acting like a benign advisor to the king, concerned about the welfare of the people. In the meanwhile, traveling along the Yellow Brick Road, Oz saves the life of a winged monkey man named Finley (again, Zach Braff) who, given to wisecracks and a Brooklyn accent, swears his allegience to his benefactor (along the lines of Donkey in "Shrek".

Accepting the monkey as a butler and chief satchel carrier, the pair continues on the yellow brick road, taking them to China Town, where a great calamity left the small hamlet in ruins. The sound of a soft utterance brings them to China Girl (Joey King), an 18-inch miss hiding behind a table, her legs broken. She bears a strong resemblance to the girl in the wheelchair from the circus except that she's made of porcelain China, a delicate and very high quality ceramic.

Oz makes a repair and, submitting to her pleas to go with him, the new trio carries on into the Dark Forest. Acting on some bad advice, they pull off a plot to capture the sceptor of the witch living there, thinking her the evil one. This, they imagine, will rob her of her evil powers. But, the story is untrue and they wind up in the forgiving and protective arms of the second benign witch sister, Glinda.

Of the three, each of whom have plans for this wizard pretender, Glinda is the wise and patient one, the emotional heart of the film and a radiant Michelle Williams. Yes, she sees Oz in all his phony charm and superficiality, but she also recognizes his potential as the hope for the Kingdom of Oz and its diverse, well-meaning people. He may not be a wizard, but he surely has a magic trick up his sleeve, wouldn't you think?

The problem is Franco. Reaching for marquee value, Raimi & Co. first went after Robert Downey, Jr, according to the press kit, and struck out. Wrong- headed a second time, they tried for Johnny Depp with no luck. Finally, with the second-tier Franco, they secured an actor who isn't Tony Stark or Captain Jack Sparrow. Instead, his great virtues are his looks and that he's not possessed of a personality that puts an individualistic hex on the script. If only he had a little of that Shreck mojo.

Franco studied his part. He came to the set (according to Disney's press kit info) two weeks early in order to work with Las Vegas magician Lance Burton and get his magical moves down and learn the skills. As Oz, he's a relatively fresh face in the context of tentpole films. So, what's my carp with him? It's about his acting and his limited ability to give the role the panache it calls for. What was so needed to fully realize the dimensions of the story, in my view, would be a young Ian McKellan. Would Jude Law have the chops? Jake Gyllenhaal?

As handsome and lens loving as any great leading man, Franco has a problem with naturalness and pacing. It seems like you could pay a visit to the lobby while he gets a line off, or reacts to someone else's. He has not mastered dialogue rhythm. There are times when the movie stalls while he gets off a line BUT... it's also true that there are so many enthralling things on the road ahead in this glorious 235 million dollar production, like the invention of China Girl, that it's worth the wait. Finally, in the last act, influenced by the prevailing ebbulience (and emotional directness) of the moment, he delivers his lines in a terse, natural way. He has found his footing.

If I was the director I'd rehearse the heck out of him to make sure he had the lines down pat. I'd also know that this guarantees nothing, that when it's time to deliver the line he might yet be thinking about his delivery ant that I'd need to be on him in every scene to keep the pace up!

Which is why I was having my doubts about the film during the black and white prologue set in Kansas. As it unspooled, I was less and less looking forward to a whole film with this guy. But the imagination and imagery when he gets to Oz soon took that qualm away.

One of those genius moments that justifies the ticket price is the China Girl scene, which put me (and the audience I was in) under a spell. The inventiveness of this character is nothing less than inspired and builds a sense of anticipation that captures us and holds us in a state of barely breathing. If the projector had gone out in the middle of it there would have been a riot. In the theatre, the collective sigh at its conclusion was unanimous and palpable. We had just witnessed something exquisite.

If only the entire film was composed of that level of dramatic magic. But, with exposition necessary to delineate three witch sisters who are all after the handsome newcomer, a certain redundancy becomes part of the otherwise rich, highly imagined landscape.

Then, there's Rachel Weisz. I think it's fair to say she's never tackled such vivid wickedness like this, though she's been in historical fantasies, such as the "Mummy" series. This is an actress whose beauty and depth bring her to more cerebral roles, like the doctor in "The Bourne Legacy;" to the intensity of "The Fountain" and "The Constant Gardener;," and to the seriousness of "Enemy at the Gates," and "Runaway Jury."

This master thespian adds nuance, intelligence and humor to a portrayal of wretchedness and evil, exceeding similar roles as played by Charlize Theron ("Snow White and the Huntsman") or Tilda Swinton (White Witch in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". Weisz invests her character with... well, a level of character that's beyond what you might expect from a "wicked witch."

Cinematography by Peter Deming ("The Cabin in the Woods"), production design by Robert Stromberg ("Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" as concept artist), set decoration by Nancy Haigh and costume design by Gary Jones are a few of the components of "Oz the Great and Powerful"'s amazing cinema sorcery. CGI is state-of-the-art and of the imagination while 3-D effects are aptly motivated by the action and camera movement. Raimi rains down glowing particles around his characters and fires spears at us just in case we've forgotten that we're part of the adventure. The violence for us, however, is bloodless and not to be feared.

Though the film is uneven, the good parts are enough to make it appealing as a fantasy of a greedy, empty man finding his soul. As we witness his transformation, and the conceptualization that gives it dimension, we find enough storytelling ideas and high-level artistry to forgive the stumbles and hold us in its spell. We engage with the journey on several levels, not the least of which is its tone of whimsy, which tells us not to take this supposed sequel to one of the most watched classics too seriously.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 7

I really enjoyed this movie but I agree about not being sure if Franco was the right choice as the wizard.

                                                           ~~ John N. 
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 10
                                                           ~~ Ari 

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Finley, the winged monkey man, China Girl, the porcelain lady, and Oz, aghast within the Dark Forest.

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