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'Oz the Great and Powerful' cast smart, but effects flat

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
This publicity film image released by Disney Enterprises shows James Franco, left, and director Sam Raimi on the set of 'Oz the Great and Powerful.' Disney will release its anticipated prequel to the 1939 movie on Friday, Feb. 7, 2013. Directed by Raimi, 'Oz the Great and Powerful' explores the origins of the wizard (James Franco) and the witches (Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz) in a three-dimensional Oz. AP

In the end, it all comes down to the flying monkeys. It always does.

Disney apparently wasn't pleased with early cuts of the long-awaited, mega-budget “Wizard of Oz” prequel they were making, and decided to expand the all-digital flying monkey character (voiced by Zach Braff).

That's the main problem with “Oz the Great and Powerful.” It's not that monkey sidekick Finley reaches Jar Jar Binks-levels of annoyance. It's that you can almost see the shadowy contours of a great “Wizard of Oz”-worthy movie here, obscured by a fog of overwrought special effects, overcooked plotting and extraneous dialogue.

All the essential moving parts ought to be in place. Director Sam Raimi has gone from low-budget cult horror (“Evil Dead”) to blockbuster superhero action (the “Spider-Man” trilogy) while keeping at least some of his edge. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are perfectly cast as the witches.

At first, the mercurial, smirking James Franco seems miscast as the lead. But the character isn't supposed to be entirely lovable — he's a sleazy, carnival sideshow con man and parlor-trick magician.

Franco is Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a traveling circus magician in 1905 Kansas, who yearns for greatness. He's also selfish, vain and relishes his skill in tricking credulous farmers and their pretty daughters. He's not a good man, and he knows it.

The early scenes are among the film's most effective, photographed in deep-contrast black and white.

When Oscar's amorous advances on the circus strongman's girl aren't appreciated, he flees in the circus's hot-air balloon — and into a cyclone, which whisks him off to the magical, full-color land of Oz.

Stranded in a strange new land, he meets a beautiful witch, Theodora (Kunis), who immediately assumes that he's the wizard that prophesy has foretold. She takes him to Emerald City, where all he has to do is claim his throne, the kingdom, a room full of gold, and his choice of queen, Theodora or her sister-witch Evanora.

There's one catch — he has to kill the all-powerful Wicked Witch and her army of soldiers and winged monkeys.

The special effects of “Oz,” digital and otherwise, are oddly inert, despite the presence of effects/makeup ace Greg Nicotero (originally from Pittsburgh). One exception is the delicate, childlike China Girl, a computer-generated sidekick picked up along the yellow brick road.

To make “Oz” work well, everything has to look amazing. Instead, it looks good in places, like cutting-room debris from “Avatar” in others, and a candy-coated Katy Perry video in some.

There are a few of Raimi's signature scares scattered here and there, but little of the dark humor and visual wit that he's known for.

Plot holes abound. One involves a key character staying totally oblivious to hundreds of giant, evil, flying monkeys hanging around the Emerald City.

“Oz” doesn't have to be plausible, but its world ought to, at least, make sense on its own terms.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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