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'Oz the Great and Powerful' explains the man in the Emerald City ★★ 1/2

In show business, like all business, very often you spend money to make money. Director Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" is Disney's latest attempt to spend $200 million to make a billion worldwide, on the order of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." Shot in 3-D on soundstages in Pontiac, Mich., the movie carries a heavy load of expectation-based freight and stockholder-oriented imperatives, enough to make it pretty hard on Raimi and company to achieve anything truly wondrous. With some industrial products you must settle for agreeable.

This is an uneven but agreeably managed blockbuster, better than the last one ("Jack the Giant Slayer") aiming for the same demographic.

Raimi's just enough of an oddball, franchise-friendly (from his three "Spider-Man" pictures) yet happy to return to the well of exploitation grunge now and then ("Drag Me to Hell"), to sneak in some strangeness as well as some verifiable filmmaking. Mostly it's visual touches, punctuation, such as the way Raimi angles the camera this way and that to denote extreme danger. Or the way he'll zwoop in or out with a zoom shot on Rachel Weisz, stopping short of where you think it will. Also, he's a sucker for sweetness, as in Raimi's obvious fondness for the kindly winged (animated) monkey in the bellboy's uniform, voiced by Zach Braff.

The movie's weaknesses and strengths are captured by James Franco, as the carny magician who departs 1905 Kansas to play that great Orpheum circuit in the sky, otherwise known as the Land of Oz, reachable only by tornado. Franco, who can be great fun on screen, is capable of many things. Rhetorical flourish and theatrical brio aren't two of them. When asked to bamboozle the gullible customers on Earth or in Oz ("It was nothing, just a little prestidigitation-ist display"), you worry that he won't make it through some of his lines alive. And yet he seems to be having a ball up there. Attitude counts when you're in the middle of a really big movie with lots of fireballs and green electricity zapping out of a witch's fingers.

Is "Oz the Great and Powerful" a prequel to the Oz we know best from the movies, "The Wizard of Oz," or a separate adventure culled from the L. Frank Baum books, or what? Yes to all three. In a nod to the 1939 classic, Raimi begins in Kansas in 1.33:1 screen ratio, in black and white, introducing Oscar "Oz" Diggs (Franco) as he readies a fetching new assistant for his tent-show act. One twister later, the movie expands to widescreen and color, and almost immediately we're reminded why we're wearing our 3-D glasses. Oz's hot-air balloon lands in raging fantastical river rapids, leading him to the first of the three witches of note.

Mila Kunis, in shiny black riding trou, plays Theodora, who falls instantly for the wizard sent, she believes, to save her kingdom. Weisz, the one with the penchant for impromptu electric shocks, is Evanora, Ms. Trouble. Michelle Williams, wonderfully cast, counters the evil with her plaintive version of Glinda. The charlatan from Earth, Franco's top-hatted character, must lead the revolution to restore order and democracy to Oz.

As a series of sights, which movies like these are, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is more like "Oz the Digital and Relentless." Certainly this is true in its final half-hour, which seemed to me to be all explosions. The script comes from Mitchell Kapner, who concocted the story, and David Lindsay-Abaire, hired on to bring some style and a few jokes. I laughed a few times, mostly at Braff's voice work for the animated monkey with the goo-goo eyes.

I suspect there's just enough heart in this sleek Tin Man of a project to connect with an audience. Preteens, however, may freak out whenever Theodora's simian minions reappear, fangs at the ready. It's best to consider "Oz the Great and Powerful" as the bombastic 21st-century prelude to the 20th-century "Oz" we know. It's also the cinematic horse that crossed the finish line ahead of the Broadway musical "Wicked," itself a hugely successful prequel to Baum's mythology. For years "Wicked" has been in various stages of preproduction on a film version, and it likely will come before the cameras before too long. Baum's yellow brick road — digital or painted, with or without songs — was built to last.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Oz the Great and Powerful' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)
Running time: 2:10
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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