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Review: 'Oz the Great and Powerful' could use more heart

REVIEW: You've got to have courage to take on a film that's as beloved as "The Wizard of Oz," but a heart and a brain help, too. Prequel "Oz the Great and Powerful" could use a little more of both.

James Franco plays the young Wizard of Oz in the prequel to the classic film.
James Franco plays the young Wizard of Oz in the prequel to the classic film.Walt Disney

That's not to say it's terrible. If you're off to see the Wizard, you won't feel that the 1939 original has been dissed here. And some of the new creations, especially China Town, a marvelous town made of china dishes and dolls, are as memorable as the poppy fields of old.

The story poses an intriguing question: How did the cranky braying Wizard get to be the faker behind the curtain? James Franco plays Oscar "Oz" Diggs, a dashing young Kansas carnival magician who breaks hearts and fakes out audiences with his illusions. The early scenes are played in black-and-white just as Dorothy's Kansas scenes were, and the people Oz mixes with will return once he gets to the Land of Oz, just as her farmhands do. That's a nice throwback, and there are others.

But once Oz gets to Oz and the world turns into sparkling color, things get too complicated and go on for way too long. The three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) don't really stand out, except to note that costuming Kunis in skintight leather pants, trotting around Oz's wilderness in spike-heeled boots was a decision made for much crasser reasoning than Oz tradition or logic.

Instead of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, the future Wizard pals up with Finley a flying monkey, sweet little China Girl, and to a lesser extent, two forgettable characters dubbed the Master Tinker and Knuck. Finley is a cute idea -- take those flying monkeys that traumatized us as kids and make them likable -- especially since the majority of the flying monkeys in this film have been given a horror-movie twist and are creepy baboons. But to play off another throwback to a Kansas friend, he's voiced by Zach Braff, whose whiny tone never fits cuddly looking Finley's role.

Say this about the original "Oz," the plot was simple. Follow the Yellow Brick Road to ask the Wizard for home, a brain, a heart, and courage. This one's all over the place, with the witches conniving against each other, China Girl's hometown destroyed and never avenged, and extraordinarily complicated battle-prep scenes. The movie is a groaningly long two hours plus, and one youngster in my screening fell asleep.

The film's in 3-D, apparently so things can fly at the screen randomly, but it rarely lives up to the jacked-up ticket price. Kids under 7 are going to face some scary scenes, including the more-terrifying monkeys, a weirdly frightening googly-eyed flower, and a creepy scene where the good witch Glinda is tortured.

In the original film, the Wizard was a big faker, hiding behind a grander image because he knew he wasn't what he pretended to be. "Oz the Great and Powerful" can't live up to a grander image either, but there's enough magic to make it enjoyable for what it is.

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