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posted: 3/7/2013 6:00 AM

'Oz' prequel a banal beginning to beloved fantasy

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  • Oz the magician (James Franco) teams up with a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) in Sam Raimi's lackluster prequel "Oz the Great and Powerful."

      Oz the magician (James Franco) teams up with a flying monkey named Finley (Zach Braff) in Sam Raimi's lackluster prequel "Oz the Great and Powerful."

  • China Girl (voiced by Joey King) meets Oz the magician (James Franco) in Sam Raimi's bloated sequel "Oz the Great and Powerful."

      China Girl (voiced by Joey King) meets Oz the magician (James Franco) in Sam Raimi's bloated sequel "Oz the Great and Powerful."

  • Video: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

 
 

Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" achieves neither greatness nor power and, for a long time, barely qualifies being "Oz the Mediocre and Adequate."

The first hour of this highly anticipated Walt Disney prequel to the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz" lumbers along with a flabby narrative, perfunctory dialogue, stiff direction and affected performances by a stellar cast.

Then, just in the nick of time -- specifically the last 20 minutes -- Raimi and his "Oz" crew rise up from the depths of banality to salvage a splendid, moving finale that cleverly and neatly stitches this (mostly) songless prequel to the original movie musical released 74 years ago.

Mimicking the famous colorless beginning of "The Wizard of Oz," Raimi's 3-D prequel begins in black-and-white and the original film's nearly square Academy aspect ratio of 4 to 3.

At a traveling sideshow in 1905 Kansas, barely competent magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco in a tentative performance) uses tricks mostly to secure feminine companionship as his carnival sideshow travels from one dreary town to the next.

Chased by an angry strongman (the dad of Oscar's most recent conquest), the magician escapes in a hot-air balloon that instantly gets sucked into a tornado, bumped about by flying slow-motion 3-D debris, then dumped into a wondrous, enchanted widescreen land filled with color.

In short order, Oscar (who goes by the nickname of Oz) hooks up with an attractive witch in red named Theodora (doe-eyed Mila Kunis), a cheesy CGI winged monkey wearing a movie usher's suit named Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), plus a diminutive porcelain doll named China Girl (voiced by Joey King).

Oz discovers that the denizens of this strange land -- he oddly never reacts with any sense of awe or disbelief at what he witnesses -- assume he's the Wizard foretold to be the savior who will become king and save the people from the evil that enslaves them.

What evil? That gets a little tricky. Theodora's inexplicably British-accented older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) promises Oz a kingdom of gold if he fulfills the prophesy by killing their rival, the evil witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) and breaking her wand.

Oz almost accomplishes the task, but at the last moment, realizes that Glinda looks pretty foxy for an evil witch, and gets the real lowdown on who's the most wicked of the witches in the kingdom. (Hint: Not Glinda.)

Meanwhile, back at the palace, poor Theodora realizes that Lothario Oz was simply playing with her heart when he said all those nice things about her. She cries tears that leave scars on her cheeks.

Then she bites into her sister's magic apple that shrinks her heart a couple of sizes, gives her a pointy chin, a green complexion and Tammy Faye Bakker eyebrows.

Theodora cuts loose with a cackle that sounds eerily like Margaret Hamilton's 1939 laugh as the Wicked Witch of the West. Theodora's transformation is complete!

(Unfortunately, Disney marketing geniuses killed their movie's golden goose by releasing photos of Kunis in her Hamilton incarnation, destroying what could have been a rewarding dramatic reveal in the story.)

"The Wizard of Oz" is one of the leanest, if not the leanest movie to come out of a Hollywood editing bay. Not a second of time gets wasted in this breathless, timeless classic.

Yet, Raimi's "Oz" suffers from a bad case of dramatic inertia, a puzzler considering that Raimi directed Tobey Maguire's lickety-split "Spider-man" trilogy and two visually stunning "Evil Dead" horror films.

There's also something disturbingly mean and mercenary about "Oz" during this post-"Zero Dark Thirty" period in America.

Where Dorothy and her pals set out to steal a witch's broom (her death was unintended collateral damage), Oz and his pals go on a blunt search-and-assassinate mission to take out Glinda.

"Let's go kill a wicked witch!" cute little China Doll chimes to her buddies. (But then, she's the only one in the group packing a big knife for self-protection.)

"Oz" redeems itself during the finale by punching emo-buttons that conjure up memories of the 1939 classic.

In the end, the lumps in our throats aren't caused by anything in Raimi's new movie.

No, they form because of our own jogged memories of Dorothy's Oz, a far greater and more powerful story that took place in a land beyond the rainbow.

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