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Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:38 pm

Raimi and Franco save new Oz


James Franco and Mila Kunis

Is Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful a foolhardy endeavor to cash in on one of the most beloved films of all time or an honorable addition to the folklore of this classic slice of Americana? Actually, it’s a little bit of both and then some. This Disney production contains more than its share of eye-popping, “Oh, wow!” moments that prove that the studio has put every bit of the film’s $200 million budget up on screen. While it’s undeniably stunning, it’s obvious that Raimi and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have great respect for L. Frank Baum’s source material and themes, as they never make light of the characters or environment, striving instead to create a new narrative worthy of his grand tradition. For the most part they succeed, though it does take them quite a while to realize this goal.

Beginning in Kansas in 1905, we meet Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a con man posing as a magician in a traveling circus. A natural charmer, he’s able to convince farm girls they’ve hit the big time when they agree to assist him and has no problem pulling off feats of slight of hand by diverting audiences with his dazzling smile and boyish personality. However, deep down he knows he’s not living up to his potential and is meant for great things. Before he knows it, he gets a chance to prove himself when a balloon he’s jumped into while fleeing an irate cuckold, is whisked away to the magical land of Oz by a tornado.

As with the original film, this journey takes us from a drab black and white landscape, shot in the old squarish 1:33 aspect ratio, to a widescreen world that’s a bit of a Technicolor nightmare. The transition, though welcome as Raimi has no clue how to shoot in such a confined frame, is so jarring that the colors are an assault on the eyes. However, once the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) takes Diggs to the Emerald City, the visuals become less garish and the story kicks into high gear. Seems the magician is the answer to a prophecy that states that a great wizard will descend from the sky in order to free the citizens of Oz from the clutches of an evil witch and then be named ruler of the land for his trouble. Though he’s quick to point out that he’s no wizard, once Theodora’s sister and fellow witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz) show him the riches he’ll have at his disposal, he quickly takes to his quest, reasoning, “How hard can it be?”

Turns out, it’s plenty hard to kill an evil witch, especially when everything you’ve been told about her proves to be false. However, Diggs finds allies in Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams), Finley, a loyal flying monkey (voice by Zach Braff) and a delicate china girl (voice by Joey King), all of whom do their best to convince the ersatz wizard that he’s just the man to free the citizens of Oz from the clutches of a malevolent evil.

The film provides its origin of the Wicked Witch of the West and it’s pretty thin as stories like this go. What causes all of this to occur is a bit too simplistic and the performer given the task of filling this role simply doesn’t have the presence to pull it off. Equally troubling is the casting of Weisz and Kunis who would have been better suited had they switched roles. While the former is capable of anything, Theodora’s journey is far more interesting and it would have been interesting to see what the Oscar-winning actress could have done with it.

And while Franco has many detractors, I found him to be a perfect fit for the role. The actor has always had an air of superficiality, which lends itself to Diggs’ nature as he’s nothing more than a charlatan for much of the film. What with the actor’s Cheshire Cat smile and natural charm, he’s thoroughly convincing as a man who not only fools others, but more tragically himself. Yet like Warren Beatty before him, there’s more to Franco than meets the eye and he proves equally effective once Diggs becomes the man he was meant to be, realizing that always acting in your own best interest does nothing but ensure a life of loneliness.

To be sure, there will be detractors to the film, as many believe that the 1939 classic is sacrosanct and any attempt to alter or add to it is an act of heresy. That’s too bad, as they will be missing out on a genuinely amusing and clever trip that reiterates the all-important theme of self-reliance.

Raimi’s film renders this message in a powerful and poignant manner as he and all involved have created a new chapter in the Oz saga that none of them should be ashamed of.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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