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Oz prequel lacks original Wizard's magic

The movie sequel is an agreeable species, beloved by Hollywood producers for its easy marketability, by Hollywood screenwriters for its built-in story and characters, and by the movie-going public for the pleasure of engaging those familiar stories and characters along a wide timeline. The movie prequel, though possessed of those same qualities in varying degrees, is a bit of a different beast—creatively empowered, in a way sequels aren't, by the freedom of a genesis narrative.

So it's no wonder that anticipation reached fever pitch in the days preceding last weekend's opening of Oz the Great and Powerful, in which noted director Sam Raimi and a pair of screenwriters—one a Pulitzer-winning playwright—were tasked with the formidable job of imagining the backstory to one of American cinema's most iconic properties.

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That anticipation was palpable in my own household, to such degree that for the first time in my reviewing career, I was accompanied on the job by both my wife and my 7-year-old son. Consequently, it also marked the first time I've seen a 3D movie since my own childhood. Though I'll spare you most of the details of Bring Your Family to Work Day, reviewer-style, I'll relay the goriest: My wife has elevated the art of theater sustenance to the point where she brings her own mix of melted butter and spices to slather over the gargantuan refillable tub of popcorn that accompanies her and the boy on their semi-regular movie excursions, and a fair bit of my notes were damaged in the greasy carnage of popcorn overindulgence.

No matter, though, as Oz is a movie that leaves a hell of an impression, for better and for worse. The better is mostly confined to the structure of the backstory itself; Raimi and his writers took great pains to establish a highly serviceable central theme—the dramatic tension between the desire to attain greatness and the achievement of attaining goodness—and to then subtly weave elements of that story into the foundation of the epic 1939 original.

Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is a two-bit magician and careless lothario in a turn-of-the-20th-century traveling circus when his hot air balloon is transported, via cyclone, from Kansas to an Oz under siege by a wicked witch and her legion of vicious flying monkeys. As in the 1939 film, Oz the Great and Powerful begins in sepia tone before transforming to startling color when the action moves to Oz—and, in a modern augmentation to the effect, the screen ratio also moves from 4:3 to full widescreen.

Channeling Wizard of Oz again, a number of characters from the Kansas scenes reappear in different, though parallel, roles later in the land of Oz, the most effective of which is the double turn played by teenage actress Joey King, first as a wheelchair-bound girl who unsuccessfully lobbies Diggs to cure her at the circus, and then as the voice of China Girl, a digitized porcelain sweetie who very nearly steals the show as a principal escort of Diggs' transformation from shallow cad to genuine hero.

But it's that transformation itself that most clearly defines the huge gap between the sublime original movie and this ultimately forgettable prequel. Franco is either flat-out miscast or horribly misdirected (or, most likely, a combination of the two) as Diggs never seems to be more than a self-interested asshole even when the script has anointed him a beacon of goodness. In fact, it's a good thing the pivotal scene of that transformation is completely telegraphed, otherwise you'd never know it happened at all.

The miscasting continues with Mila Kunis as Theodora, a witch who makes a reverse transformation from good to evil and is convincing in neither incarnation—a real tragedy for the film, as the origin of how she becomes the Wicked Witch of the West is a dandy one.

So in spite of a solid narrative foundation, dynamic performances from Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams as the other witch sisters and a mind-bending array of 3D effects, Oz the Great and Powerful just doesn't have the heart or the guts to match its brains.

That doesn't mean we won't be seeing more of the Oz franchise, though. With an opening U.S. box-office weekend of over $80 million and a worldwide haul that grossed three-quarters of the film's $200 million price tag in three days, you can bet there will be a sequel to this prequel. A presequel? Whatever you call it, here's hoping they get it right next time.

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