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Movie review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Updated on February 28, 2013

Since Judy Garland put on those ruby slippers for the classic 1939 musical, there's been quite a bit of traffic along the yellow brick road back to Oz.

Michael Jackson played the Scarecrow in the hip, urban version that was 1978's The Wiz; 2005 saw The Muppets did a version for TV that featured an appearance by Quentin Tarantino; and then there was the six hour mini-series Tin Man for the Sci-Fi channel, that starred Zooey Deschanel as DG.

There's even an upcoming animated musical feature, Dorothy of Oz, featuring Glee's Lea Michele as an all-singing Dorothy. Thankfully, none of the versions that have come since can be considered re-makes. Clearly the film is, thus far, still held in such high regard to even consider such a travesty from happening (for now).

Director Sam Raimi's new film has a twist of its own on this much loved tale, which instead of going off to see the wizard, focuses on how the wizard ended up in Oz in the first place.

It's 1955 and Oz (James Franco) finds himself in the middle of nowhere, Kansas, performing as part of a travelling carnival. He is the resident magician, who attempts to woo his audience in more ways than one. He doesn't put on a bad show, in a smoke and mirrors kind of way. Still, it makes him pretty popular with the ladies, which makes it all worthwhile as far as he's concerned.

After a set-to with a strongman, Oz needs to leave the carnival pretty sharpish. Luckily he gets into an air balloon, which gets him out of harm's way on the ground; however, the weather is truly brewing up a storm off of it, with Oz being sucked into the path of a rumbling tornado.

Oz survives, only to discover that, well, he doesn't appear to be in Kansas anymore. He soon meets the beautiful Theodora (Mila Kunis); she asks him if he's the wizard they're all expecting, and not wanting to disappoint so early on in their relationship, Oz tells her he is.

She whisks him away to the Emerald City, where he is told of a dark evil that threatens them all, an evil that has been prophesized that a wizard will destroy – therefore he will destroy. Not wanting to be seen as a charlatan, Oz agrees to face this evil menace.

The longer he spends on the yellow brick road however, the more Oz begins to realise that everything he's been told about the land of Oz thus far, might not be quite as it seems. So, with some pals he meets up along the way, this self-appointed wizard prepares to battle the darkness of Oz with nothing more than his conjuring ways.

As a prequel, this works as the perfect accompaniment to the 1939 classic. With its square-ish viewing ratio shot in black and white, Sam Raimi's film is delightfully whimsical from the off, with its gentle homage to the original. And there's a real sense of awe when Franco's character sets foot in the land of Oz for the first time, in all its colourful, widescreen, 3D glory.

It's almost enough to think that Raimi was the right man for the job. Almost.

To his credit, the casting of Franco doesn't appear to be as way off the mark as initially feared. He still doesn't feel like a bone fide lead man, but he musters a surprising (and unusual) amount of personality to make his Oz quite likeable. But when you learn that the likes of Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp were contenders for the role, it can only make you wonder what a truly magical job someone of their ilk could have done in his place.

Kunis proves to be an impressive witch though, with Michelle Williams offering an adequate performance as kind witch Glinda. Unfortunately for Rachel Weiz, her Evanora feels like an unnecessary third wheel in the mix.

The Best Scene-Stealing Performance Award goes to Zach Braff; he may only provide the voice to the animated flying monkey Finley, but it's his character that steals the entire show.

The film also suffers from severe pacing issues. It's an hour and half film at best, that's been drawn out unnecessarily to make both young and old fidgety for an extra forty minutes. It's a magical journey that becomes less magical the longer it goes on.

Danny Elfman's soundtrack certainly gives it a classic feel – which thankfully, doesn't burst into song anywhere near as often as the original – but Raimi fails to conjure up a sense of the truly epic with his levers and switches from behind his own curtain.

3 booms

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