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Oz takes us down familiar yellow-brick road
Prequel of classic tale isn't great and powerful, but still worthwhile
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James Franco, as Oz, left, and the character Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, are shown in a scene from "Oz the Great and Powerful."

‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Joey King, Zach Braff

Rated: PG, for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language

Runtime: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Bottom line: Oz the Medium and in Some Ways Strong

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to the iconic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” is being framed as a huge gamble for Disney.

Reviving that widely loved, fiercely protected property might draw huge audiences, or it might provoke an intense backlash.

Judged on its own merits, which is admittedly difficult to do, “Oz” is a visually spectacular, predictable, yet entertaining movie. Director Sam Raimi (best known for the Spider-Man and Evil Dead franchises) relies on tired tropes but creates a breathtaking world that does justice to Baum’s imagination.

A feckless, self-centered traveling magician called Oz (James Franco) is transported by a tornado into a land that bears his name. He meets three witches — Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) — a loyal flying monkey (Zach Braff), a fragile girl made of China (Joey King) and Oz’s other, already familiar inhabitants.

Oz can become king and inherit endless riches if he can manage to kill the wicked witch. There are three problems, though. First, he isn’t sure who actually is the wicked witch. Second, Oz is not a real wizard. Three, Oz is a greedy, conniving liar.

To kill the witch and save everyone, Oz will have to shed his selfish ways and become the hero the people need, yadda yadda yadda.

Despite the lazy scripting, the movie has some great moments. The sequence when we first arrive in Oz is marvelous. It’s difficult these days to create a truly awe-inspiring digital world, but Raimi and his crew have done it.

The China Girl character is a master stroke. Each time she is on screen, she makes your heart feel as fragile as her ceramic body.

The same cannot be said, though, of the movie’s star. Franco’s performance is uneven, to put it nicely. He was probably miscast to begin with. He does well when playing Oz’s smarmy, devious side, but he doesn’t inspire any allegiance at all, and a few scenes are downright painful.

Not that Franco deserves all of the blame. Why didn’t Raimi tell his star that the line readings weren’t working? Why did the editor not choose different takes?

The script does Franco no favors, either. Oz causes another character great pain, which becomes a major turning point in the story. But he is never forced to admit or atone for that injury. It’s a thematic failure that, if handled differently, could have made the movie much stronger.

Luckily for Franco, his female co-stars steal the movie anyway. Williams, Weisz and Kunis are all mesmerizing in “Oz.” The actresses each endow their characters with human frailty and supernatural menace by turns.

“Oz” is mostly about its title character, but it offers an outstanding origin story for the Wicked Witch.

So will Disney’s gamble pay off? Probably. The box office prognosticators are pessimistic, but “Oz” will satisfy its target audience more than critics.

“Oz” is destined to be compared to its classic elder cousin, and it fails in all respects. But of course it does. What movie could possibly equal one of the most beloved, enduring works ever captured on film?

No one should expect this movie to become an instant classic. But nor should they preemptively hate it.

The fanboys and those who view “The Wizard of Oz” as a sacred text are upset at the very idea of this movie. Well, get over it. Hollywood has always churned out remakes, sequels and prequels. Contrary to popular belief, this is not new or a harbinger of Hollywood’s demise.

If you feel like Disney has just assaulted part of your childhood, remember that the 1939 “The Wizard of Oz” was not the first adaptation of Baum’s book. It was a remake of a remake preceded by five Oz movies (two features, three shorts).

Those who give the movie a chance may not love it, but they will likely enjoy it. It is a family-friendly movie that doesn’t offer anything original or unexpected but is entertaining, warts and all.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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