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Review: ‘Oz’ prequel visually dynamic, but loses heart

Disney has made major waves in the last few years buying up family friendly media properties, such as the Muppets, Marvel Comics and “Star Wars.” But the practice is not new.

Walt Disney himself procured an especially rich property in the 1950s when he scooped up the film rights to most of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. So it is something of a surprise that “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco in the title role, is only the studio’s second attempt in 60 years to capitalize on those rights (third if you count the made-for-TV “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz”).

Any attempt to make an Oz movie automatically falls into the shadow of “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 musical starring Judy Garland that is one of the few movies nearly everyone has seen. Collective memories of that beloved classic obliterated Disney’s first attempt to revisit the magic land, 1985’s “Return to Oz,” released a full 30 years after Disney acquired the Oz rights. Audiences expected a merry sequel, but no one was singing about rainbows in the bleak fantasy far more faithful to Baum’s work than the MGM film.

This time, Disney isn’t taking chances with risky reinterpretation (don’t look for the bold political take of “Wicked,” the book and musical that covers much of the same Oz history). “Oz the Great and Powerful” has been mounted as a reverent prequel to the 1939 film.

It follows the same pattern, opening with a black and white sequence set in Kansas and changing to color when the wizard arrives in Oz. A few actors introduced in Kansas reemerge as enchanted creatures in Oz.

Raimi goes all in for film nostalgia during the opening. Not only do we see Kansas in monochrome, Raimi frames it within the square Academy ratio that was the standard screen size in 1939 (“The Artist” also was filmed in Academy ratio). The screen expands once the wizard is blown out of Kansas, so Oz is both more colorful than our world and wider.

Franco’s character, a two-bit magician in a three-bit traveling carnival, presciently bills himself as Oz the Great and Powerful even before he visits the magical land. His stage name is a shortening of his real name, Oscar. Vain and frustrated with his career, Oscar says, “I don’t want to be a good man, I want to be a great one.” So now we know the moral lesson he must learn.

Oscar also is a Casanova who doesn’t hide his indiscretions well. When a jealous husband comes after him, Oscar escapes in the carnival’s hot air balloon, not noticing the tornado forming in the distance.

Quicker than you can say, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” Oscar is in Oz. Almost immediately, he learns of a prophecy that a great wizard who shares the kingdom’s name will be crowned king once he vanquishes the wicked witch. Oscar loves the idea of being king, especially when he sees Emerald City’s vast treasure room, but he’s not thrilled about fighting a witch. The fake wizard knows a handful of flash powder is no match for real magic.

Oscar encounters three witches, Theodora the winsome (Mila Kunis), Evanora the scheming (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda the good (Michelle Williams). The script, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, plays guessing games as to which witch is the wicked witch, but the studio’s publicity department has done a lousy job of keeping the secret.

Reversing Dorothy’s route, the would-be wizard follows the Yellow Brick Road from the Emerald City to Munchkinland. He acquires two companions along the way, a flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) and the doll-like China Girl (voiced by Joey King).

Both are CGI characters, and they are of Gollum quality, believably sharing the same physical space as Franco and conveying emotion better than some of their human co-stars. China Girl is an uncanny creation who looks and moves exactly like a china doll brought to life.

The first half of “Oz the Great and Powerful” is filled with sweetness and wonder. Knowing winks to the 1939 film are plentiful. A cowardly lion, perhaps the cowardly lion, appears. When Oscar first sees the Emerald City, he says, “It’s a good thing green is my favorite color.” He wonders why a flying monkey would be dressed like a bellhop.

Finley and China Girl contribute considerable enchantment to the film’s first half. They are engaging characters, the feisty doll and the timid monkey, with amusing dialogue. They play well against Franco’s greed and opportunism.

Once the group arrives in Munchkinland, the story shifts to the war of the witches. A wave of new, less interesting supporting characters is introduced, leaving China Girl and Finley less to do and say. Their voices are missed.

Like so many films dependent on CGI, “Oz” becomes all about action, spectacle and special effects. Given Raimi’s bravura visual dynamism, the spectacle and effects are dazzling, and “Oz” joins the handful of live-action movies worth seeing in 3-D.

But, except for the conspicuously underdeveloped Theodora, characters make the first half of “Oz” fun, just as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion made the original film indelible. Once Raimi pushes character into the background, his movie loses heart (and maybe some courage and brains).

Also, because the two evil witches need to survive this movie so Dorothy can kill them later, the stakes for the climax are low. The stage must be set for the next tornado to bring the next visitor from Kansas, so we know which characters will be scattered to various points of the compass and who will wind up behind the curtain.

Raimi’s prequel is a beautiful diversion, a colorful and clever homage to perhaps the most loved film of all time. But for all the technical wizardry that goes into it, “Oz the Great and Powerful” does not live up to its adjectives. 

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