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Yellow brick road revisited Oz the Great and Powerful'

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Disney offering offers decent family fun

There are few places in cinematic history as iconic as the Land of Oz. 1939's 'The Wizard of Oz' is more than a family classic; it's a pop cultural touchstone as significant as any in film. Plenty of subsequent artists have returned there in the years since, with varying degrees of success. Big-screen trips to Oz have basically been flops.

'Oz the Great and Powerful' is Disney's latest attempt (their last was 1985's 'Return to Oz') to travel down the yellow brick road. 

Oscar Diggs (James Franco; 'Tar') is a small-time stage magician/con man working the traveling carnival circuit under the stage name 'Oz the Great and Powerful.' He's living a sad and desperate life; he has no friends and decided long ago that he was not, nor would he ever be a good person. While making a hot air balloon escape from an angry victim, he is swept up into a passing tornado.

We all know what that means.

Oscar finds himself transported to the magical land whose name he shares. It turns out that his arrival coincides with a prophecy one which says he is a great wizard destined to assume the throne. He meets the witches Theodora (Mila Kunis; 'Ted') and Evanora (Rachel Weisz; 'The Bourne Legacy') not to mention a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff; 'Tar') before being sent off to do battle with Annie (Michelle Williams; 'My Week with Marilyn'), yet another witch.

Before long, Oz finds himself swept up into the problems surrounding his new land and its people. An epic battle between the forces of good and evil is brewing, and Oz has to decide if he can be the great wizard and king that he is now expected to be.

At first glance, director Sam Raimi seems an odd choice to helm a project like this one. But if you think about it, taking the guy responsible for both the 'Evil Dead' and 'Spider-Man' trilogies and sending him to Oz makes perfect sense. His comfort level with magic and the macabre allows him to create a detailed and nuanced world, but he has also proven able to treat an icon with sincerity and respect. And he does a solid, not-quite-excellent job with it it doesn't quite have the spark that you hope for, but it's an admirable effort.

What prevents this film from making the leap from good to great the same battle the wizard fights internally is Franco, ironically enough. He meanders through the movie with half-lidded eyes, not doing an actively bad job, but seemingly putting in the bare minimum effort. Much of the time, Franco meets the wonders of Oz with little more than mild interest. There are glimpses of what might have been had Franco actually tried, but just glimpses. Again, not bad so much as mediocre.

However, the rest of the cast does much to make up for the shortcomings of the leading man. Witches are key to any tale of Oz. Happily, Kunis, Weisz and Williams each attack their roles with gusto; Kunis in particular has delightful moments of scenery chewing. They all embrace their witchiness wholeheartedly. Braff is engaging and consistently amusing as the voice of Finley the flying monkey while Joey King ('Crazy Stupid Love') is sweetly adorable as the China Girl. 

'Oz the Great and Powerful' had a nine-figure budget and it shows. The vibrancy inherent to the Land of Oz is rendered beautifully; the film looks amazing. The richness of the colors and the intricacy of the design made for a movie that was lovely to look at. 

It's a little surprising how well this film manages to strike the balance between currency and nostalgia. While this film is more a spiritual prequel than a literal one, there are plenty of nods to the past to satisfy fans of the original film. Still, 'Oz the Great and Powerful' is its own story, lending an intriguing new (and family-friendly) look at that world.

3.5 out of 5

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