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Oz the Great and Powerful

(2013) ** 1/2 Pg
130 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Rachel Weisz, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Zach Braff.

/content/films/4480/1.jpgThe "sound-alike" has long been a practice of those looking to borrow the cachet of a piece of music by producing a knock-off rather than paying royalties for the real deal. Well, Disney has a shiny new Oz movie for you (and the whole family) that's a "look-alike" of Warner property The Wizard of Oz, but shhh, Disney doesn't want to get sued.

Oz the Great and Powerful comes billed as based on the public-domain works of L. Frank Baum, therefore omitting ruby slippers and tweaking just-so the designs created for the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. But the effect is a lot like the movie as well-made Halloween costume: as it plays dress-up, you immediately recognize what it "is." The effect is underlined by director Sam Raimi staging and shooting the opening scenes, set in 1905 Kansas, in the visual style of the 1939 movie: black and white "Academy" ratio that expands to vintage Technicolor-hued color widescreen once the movie arrives in the magical land of Oz.

This prequel concerns the story of how the Wizard installed himself as "the man behind the curtain" in the Emerald City. James Franco plays roguish carnival magician Oscar Diggs (a.ka. "Oz"), whose hot-air balloon gets whipped by a tornado into the land of Oz. There he meets a fetching witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that he must be the wizard foretold in prophecy to inherit the Emerald City throne.

Theodora takes Oz to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who regards him with suspicion but sends him on a mission to kill a witch and thereby earn his fated position of power and great fortune. That witch turns out to be Glinda (Michelle Williams). In story terms, this sort of connect-the-dots prequel is basically a dead end, deterministically warned not to stray from its yellow-brick road and doomed to a foregone conclusion.

The script by Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) gets to sort out the aforementioned witch politics (the main concern: which witch is the Wicked Witch...of the West?), but mostly settles for revisiting every possible trope of the original story rather than trying to break narrative or thematic ground: there's no idea here that wasn't expressed more efficiently in the 1939 film, rendering this 2013 film redundant.

Oz the Great and Powerful gets saved from the junk heap by Franco and especially by director Sam Raimi, who happily treats the enterprise as a sandbox. Like Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese before him, Raimi finds his first foray into 3D creatively envigorating, at least in visual terms. His comical in-your-face style is entirely suited to 3D, and the premium at the box office is worth it to see what this cinematic craftsman does with it.

Meanwhile, Franco's smiley mischief keeps the picture buoyant (is that an extra glint in the local boy's eye when he name-checks Thomas Alva Edison as "the wizard of Menlo Park"?), as do two appealingly precocious CGI characters with whom he convincingly acts: China Girl (voiced by Joey King and based on Baum's China Princess) and flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff). The leading ladies do their best, but their characters are both overly familiar and thinly, unconvincingly motivated.

A special-effects reel does not a movie make. Okay, it didn't in 1939, but it sorta does now, sadly. At least Raimi's PG pastiche is highly skilled: his picture is a feast for the eyes of tasteful pictorial imagination, making spectacular use of state-of-the-art visual and aural effects. It's a bit difficult to stick with the story, especially in the draggy final leg, but when Raimi keeps the tone light, this Oz can make fun.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby

Street date: 6/11/2013

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Disney has brought Oz the Great and Powerful to home video in a dizzying array of options, so choose wisely for your needs. Here I'll take a look at the Blu-ray 3D + Digital Copy edition as well as the Blu-ray + Digital Copy edition. The Blu-ray 3D edition comes with a flyer explaining how to get by mail order (for $5.99) a physical copy of the 2D Blu-ray, and the 2D Blu-ray offers an option to receive the Blu-ray 3D under the same terms. That said, the Digital Copy allows access to the bonus features to purchasers of the Blu-ray 3D. Got that?

First, the 2D Blu-ray presentation: color is bold and rich, beautifully rendered to match the theatrical experience, and the image is spotless and crisp in detail and textures (of the costumes, in particular). Aside from a touch of noise or crush in the deepest shadows, the picture is free from any issues of digital compression. This is one beautiful transfer, giving a sense of dimensionality even without the 3D.

That said, I contend that this is a movie that justifies the premium price for 3D. Always visually playful, Sam Raimi was made for 3D filmmaking, and the experience of this film was expressly designed for the 3D format. The 3D Blu-ray does not disappoint, losing nothing from the 2D transfer while adding eye-popping 3D effects. Unlike some 3D pictures that leave one feeling ripped off, this one's constantly offering up a magical depth, whether it's the delirious tornado sequence, introductions to Oz environments with notable depth-of-field, or the translucent bubbles of Glinda.

Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix dazzles in its potency and precise directionality; as one would expect of this title, the rear speakers bristle with activity. Music is full, dialogue entirely clear, and effects sharp and expertly delineated and placed. (Those with home theater setups will need to manually select the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, as the disc defaults to Dolby Digital Stereo.)

The bonus features on the Blu-ray disc (and available via the Digital Copy in the 3D Blu-ray set) add significant value, starting with the downloadable app Disney Second Screen, designed for synchronized playback during the movie. Some of the exclusive bonuses included in the app: "The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz," "The Sounds of Magical Oz," "Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater" and "Mariah Carey Music Video."

"Walt Disney and the Road to Oz" (10:13, HD) gives the history of Disney’s intentions regarding L. Frank Baum's Oz property, most of which went unrealized.

"James Franco: My Journey in Oz" (21:43, HD) consists of the star’s video diary, including interviews with Raimi and castmates. Interestingly, the British Board of Film Classification lists the running time of this feature as exactly 52 minutes—is that an error, or has Franco's film been hacked up for this release?

"China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief" (5:26, HD) focuses on the CGI character voiced by actress Joey King; among those interviewed are King, production designer Robert Stromberg, and costume designer Michael Kutsche.

"Before Your Very Eyes" (11:02, HD) allows the stars, Raimi, producer Joe Roth, production designer Robert Stromberg, and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk to take us on a studio tours of several of the film’s thirty sets.

"Mila’s Metamorphosis" (7:43, HD) focuses on Mila Kunis' Oz makeover, a collaboration of makeup (lead makeup artist Howard Berger comments), costume, special effects and acting.

"Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions" (7:13, HD) hands off to composer Danny Elfman, who explains his journey with the material and how he arrived at the film's themes.

Rounding out the extras is an entertaining "Blooper Reel" (5:06, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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