Rating: PG Running Time: 130 Minutes
Stars: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis
Director: Sam Raimi
The visual wonders of Oz the Great and Powerful, Disney's new prequel to The Wizard of Oz, begin with the opening credits — a dizzying journey through a maze-like world seemingly created from paper cutouts, the names of the cast and creators mounted on sticks thrust into place by unseen hands.
Of course, that homemade look required hours upon hours of computer time; millions of 0s and 1s tediously entered by some nameless Silicon Valley programmer. The trick of the effect — along with the rest of the dizzying visuals to follow in Oz the Great and Powerful — is to hide all that hard work.
From the earliest days of movies, the best cinematic effects have never let us see the man behind the curtain. If you'll let it, Oz the Great and Powerful will soon have you forgetting that this is yet another scenic wonder from Disney's dream factory.
Director Sam Raimi (of the Spider-Man trilogy) and production designer Robert Stromberg (Avatar) have created a universe where witches convincingly commute via bubble and broomstick, where monkeys and baboons sprout wings, and where the darkest of dangers stand in stark contrast to a dazzlingly beautiful, impossibly fanciful countryside.
There is, of course, a story attached to this new visit to Oz. It's the genesis of the Great Man himself, of how he rose to become "the great and powerful Oz" from humble beginnings on the plains of Kansas. (You'll remember that, in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, the Wiz confided to Dorothy "I'm a Kansas man myself!")
As the transplanted Wizard, James Franco is all dimples and charm — a con man caught in his own net of bravura. There's a trio of witches here: two wicked or wicked-ish (Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis) and one good (Michelle Williams). Williams and Weisz have it easiest; their characters are mean and nice in ways not foreign to certain church ladies I have known over the years. Kunis, on the other hand, has the thankless task of playing a younger version of the green-skinned, pointy-chinned Wicked Witch of the West. Her performance serves only to remind us of how truly difficult it is to convincingly play over-the-top evil in the manner Margaret Hamilton did in the Oz we all grew up with.