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How can the Wizard of Oz be at once such a fake and so wise? He is a phony hiding behind smoke and mirrors; how can he see into the Tin Man’s heart? Or pin a medal to the Lion’s courage and recognize the Scarecrow’s braininess?

If such a question ever bothered you, you will enjoy director Sam Raimi’s prequel to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Much of the pleasure in watching Oz comes from recognizing allusions to the original film.

As in the original, Oz begins in black and white. We discover the future Wizard as Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a second-rate, womanizing magician from Kansas who mistreats his long-suffering assistant and turns away Annie (Michelle Williams), the woman he truly loves. Why? Because he feels he is not a good man, and he seeks greatness and power. A balloon-ride in a tornado (who would have guessed it!) sets Oscar off to Oz and a yellow-bricked road to self-discovery and redemption.

The land of Oz, of course, includes a number of witches—sisters three in this version, with some initial confusion as to which witch is really, really wicked. Mila Kunis plays Theodora, a semi-good witch who eventually turns green with envy over Oscar, while Rachel Weisz is Evanora, the true witch to avoid. Michelle Williams, taking on a second role, plays Glinda the Good Witch, who teaches Oscar to float in bubbles and rise above his baser instincts to be both heroic and wise.

Warner Brothers, the owners of the rights to The Wizard of Oz, did not allow Disney to use numerous elements from the original film. For example, there are no ruby slippers on any wicked witch. These legal restrictions pushed the screenwriters to be more creative, adding Finley, a flying monkey who acts as Oscar’s kind assistant. The scene-stealer, however, is China Doll, a walking, talking doll from a place called China Town. Watch out for the fun references to a cowardly lion and a bunch of scarecrows making their way through a sleep-inducing poppy field.

Much of the film drags along quite slowly, relying a bit too much on James Franco grinning his way through a part he clearly enjoyed. While the computer-generated images are of the high quality now expected in big-budget movies, there are still too many moments when the blending of human and digital characters seems unnatural and choppy.

When the film ended, the parents behind me asked their son what he thought of the movie. “It was good,” he replied. Not great, not powerful. But Oz the Great and Powerfulstilloffers a welcome break from the intensity of Oscar-winning dramas—now making their way to DVDs—and also a respite from the upcoming onslaught of action-focused summer blockbusters. (Disney)

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