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Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

No movie ever can, or will, replace 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz, but taken on its own terms, this eye-filling fantasy is an entertaining riff on how the Wizard of that immortal film found his way to Oz. Like the stage musical Wicked, it assumes that its audience knows the story told in The Wizard of Oz. Yet even for people who (for some reason) haven’t seen the other movie, I suspect this will play as a stand-alone piece; it just won’t have the same resonance.

The production pays homage to the 1939 movie by opening in black & white, in the old-fashioned Academy screen ratio, then expanding and turning into vivid color once the magician named Oz (short for Oscar) arrives in the faraway land that bears his name. I was a bit skeptical about the casting of James Franco in this role, as a small-time carnival magician, but he is thoroughly engaging as a struggling con man and charmer.

The screenplay, by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (based on Kapner’s screen story and, of course, the works of L.Frank Baum), offers a sturdy and relatable through-line. Our roguish hero flees Kansas in a hot-air balloon during a tornado and winds up in Oz. The citizens, who are under the control of a wicked witch, welcome him, as he appears to be the wizard whose arrival has been prophesized. He tries to explain that he isn’t a wizard at all, but after being smitten by a beautiful witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) and dazzled by the golden treasure he will acquire, he decides to play along. The relationship between Kunis, her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) propels much of the story that follows. (You’ll get no spoilers from me.) At its core is the question of whether or not Oz can summon the bravado to become the leader the people of Oz need and deserve. Zach Braff and Joey King appear briefly at the beginning of the movie, then morph into Franco’s colorful companions, a flying monkey and a porcelain china doll.  

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Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP - Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

To pull this off, Oz The Great and Powerful is played straight; its sincerity should win over younger viewers completely. It isn’t overplayed (thank goodness), so grownups can engage with it, too. And, in the tradition of the 1939 classic, director Sam Raimi and his team fill the screen with sights of awe and wonder, beginning with a dazzling title sequence designed by Garson yU of yU+co. It’s difficult to rouse an audience with something new and different these days, but Raimi and company have pulled it off, and much of the credit goes to production designer Robert Stromberg, who won Oscars for his work on Avatar and the 2010 Alice in Wonderland.

Is this an Oz for the ages? That’s not for me to predict, but I do think it gives audiences of 2013 a satisfying big-screen experience. It doesn’t eclipse The Wizard of Oz, but it fills the bill as a modern-day companion piece.