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After 75-year wait, ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ is saved in the nick of time

The 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz is reportedly the most watched film in the history of movies. It’s taken Hollywood almost 75 years to come up with a big-budget prequel.

So was the wait for “Oz the Great and Powerful” worth it?

The answer is both yes and no. And a lot may depend on just how predisposed you are to want to see a spin off of the original.

A quick word of warning – this prequel was not allowed to reproduce anything from the original film. Its Yellow Brick Road couldn’t look anything like the original Brick Road. The same held true for its Emerald City and Munchkinland. Even the particular shade of the Witch’s green skin was off limits.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” had to derive its imagery either directly from the L. Frank Baum books or out of thin air. So if you’re hoping for a recognizable remake of the original movie Oz, you’ll no doubt be disappointed.

But the filmmakers hired the two-time Oscar-winning production designer for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” so the look of the movie is at least accomplished. In fact, much of its $200 million budget went to the elaborate CGI and 3D special effects that the movie relies on for much of its sense of wonder.

As for the story, this prequel is all about how a two-bit circus magician/conman, played by James Franco, ends up as the Wizard of Oz.

“Kansas is full of good men,” says Oscar Diggs, “I want to be a great one.”

Like the original, the film opens in black-and-white and on a small pinched screen. Franco’s Oscar Diggs and his hot air balloon get caught up in a tornado and when they’re deposited in the land of Oz, the screen unfurls to full length and a splash of color greets the eye.

Franco is immediately heralded as the savior of Oz and over the course of the movie he meets three powerful witches played by Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis. Who’s good and who’s bad among the three is one of the surprises of the film. But the one thing they all realize is that Franco is not the Wizard he’s cracked up to be. One of the arcs of the film involves whether Franco’s character will be able to grow into the man the world wants him to be.

That’s also true for James Franco the actor as well. He’s great at playing the untrustworthy flim-flam man, the hesitant hero whose only real motivation is self-interest. But what he’s not as successful at is channeling the bluster and bravado that is at the essence of the Wizard of Oz circa 1939. I see little connection between Franco and the original’s wizard Frank Morgan, unfortunately. By the way, director Sam Raimi originally tried to get Robert Downey Jr. for the part, which would have been a far better and definitely more charismatic choice than Franco.

The 2-hour film meanders a lot, as Franco picks up a motley entourage during his travels, including a smart alec talking monkey and a cutesy China doll. But just as the movie feels like it’s wandering off into oblivion, it revives itself for a strong, action-packed final half-hour. It closes with a smart and cleverly rendered visual that asserts its ties to the 1939 original, without breaking copyright. That “great and powerful” reminder saves the movie for me, just in the nick of time.

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