‘Oz’ packs fresh stories on a trip down memory lane

The 2013 spring movie season kicks off with a welcome return to the land of Oz. This may not be the same Oz you remember from watching the classic 1939 film, but there is still plenty of visual wonder to make up for that. “OZ: The Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi (“The Spider-Man Trilogy”), is a prequel to the original film.  It tells the story of Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in his first encounter with the magical land of Oz and how he became the great and powerful “wizard.”

From the trailers, this looks almost like a carbon copy of Tim Burton’s take on “Alice and Wonderland” a few years back — a movie I was not too fond of. Even the posters look exactly the same. Put this preconceived notion behind you, because “Oz” is a movie able to stand on its own two feet and it brings some fresh ideas to the fantasy table, for better and for worse.

The beginning of the film is my favorite part. We get to see a smaller aspect ratio along with it being in black and white. This is a throwback to the early days of cinema and is a wink and a nod to the way the original had been shot. Tracking shots of the carnival where Oz worked and the way some sounds were put in made me feel as though I was watching something from the 1930s. It was a treat to take in this simple form of filmmaking.

Many clever characters and themes come into play that allude to events coming later in the film, making for a fun and thoughtful puzzle to piece together. Once Oz leaves Kansas and is sucked up in a twister to this whimsical and colorful land, the screen opens to wider range and the CGI feast begins. At first, I was in awe of the amazing things the effects artists are able to do in order to transport you to this world and give you endless amounts of eye candy.  But, once Oz starts to interact with the characters and the relationships begin to develop, some cringe-worthy dialogue that comes off as attempted humor and heartfelt warmth just falls flat. Not everything about the story and characters are this way, but you can definitely feel the pacing issues from this point on. Nothing is worse than watching a movie where you can tell the writers meant for the line or situation to be funny, but failed.

The performances range from good to just plain terrible. Let’s start with the good. James Franco was not the first choice to play Oz, but he still held his own and ended up giving a very solid and lovable performance. The original choices for the role were Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp. Not sure if these two gentlemen would have been better or worse but, all-in-all, I did enjoy seeing Franco in this role having fun with it. He has a certain charm that I like to see, especially in a character like this who starts off as a greedy prick. The three lead women are Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams. The best of the three is Williams, who plays Glinda, a gentle, soft-spoken guide to Oz. She has this kind, tender spirit that works in the world. There isn’t a whole lot to say about Rachael Weisz. She didn’t do anything memorably bad, but nothing exciting or memorable to make it a great performance either. Now, I must talk about Miss Kunis. My word … was she ever a pain to watch! She was the textbook definition of miscast. Giving away her role would technically be a spoiler, so I’ll avoid going into further detail. Just know she’s bad — really bad!

As Oz travels the land in search of the witch he is sent to destroy, the audience gets a peek at more visual spectacle. Unfortunately, some of it is really useless. I love it when the effects work with the movie by moving the plot along and having meaning as to why they were placed there in the first place. Some of the effects, though, were just cheap tricks to show off how big the budget was and how over the top they could make it. Thankfully, the over the top visuals are few and far between. Speaking of visuals, I don’t know what it was about the look of the Wicked Witch of the West in this one, but I didn’t buy it. When a villain in a 1930s film looks and sounds more threatening than one today, you know you have a problem.

That being said, this is one film you’ll want to see in 3D.  It is a spectacular use of 3D technology, not only having things pop out at you in a cheesy way, but giving the world depth and making it its own character in the film. This is how 3D should be done, but rarely is.

I was pleased when it came time for the finale simply because it looked to be going in “Alice in Wonderland” or “Snow White and the Huntsman” territory with a big battle scene with armies who don’t stand a chance going head to head with a much greater force and blah blah blah. We’ve seen that in almost every fantasy conclusion. This story takes that “end battle” and turns it into a more creative battle of wits and practical effects instead of one with weapons and bloodshed. This scene was also infused with a few nods to the original movie, which are sure to give the parents of the young kids in the theater a little enjoyment knowing that the classic is not forgotten.

This prequel is a fun adventure movie for kids and families looking for a night out, but it’s still far from a classic. The performances are all over the spectrum, but with James Franco leading the show, you are in safe hands for the journey through this mystical world. You can tell the filmmakers, Raimi in particular, put a lot of thought and care into this project, and with the right tone and writing throughout this could have been a homerun. Instead, it’s only a moderate experience with the potential to be forgotten once summer hits and the blockbusters come knocking, fast and furious, at our doors.

Grade: B-