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MOVIE REVIEW: Disney pulls off difficult feat with wonderful return to Oz

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Special Photo: Disney Enterprises Inc. In Disney's fantastical adventure "Oz The Great and Powerful," Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) travel the Yellow Brick Road on their way to The Emerald City.

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Special Photo: Disney Enterprises Inc. Glinda (Michelle Williams), the Good Witch, invokes her powers in Disneyis fantastical adventure "Oz The Great and Powerful.

Oz the Great and Powerful

(PG)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

While everyone in a position of real pull in Hollywood has probably considered it (however fleeting) at one time or another, no studio executive has ever been dumb enough to actually remake "The Wizard of Oz." Arguably the most beloved movie of all time, the post-box-office success of the 1939 classic has still led to an urban "re-imagining" ("The Wiz"), animated rip-off ventures, a pitiful sequel ("Return to Oz") and the most successful of the bunch thus far -- a spinoff Broadway musical ("Wicked").

In development for close to three years, "Oz the Great and Powerful" was a beyond-huge financial and artistic gamble. Including marketing and production, the prerelease budget is hovering around $300 million, which means a whole bunch of people better go see it (most of them more than once) and save it from being the costliest flop in movie history.

For die-hard, stuck-in-the-mud types who consider it sacrilege to even attempt a prequel or origin story, take a deep breath and chill out. Thanks to some very restrictive intellectual property rights owned by MGM and Warner Bros., the filmmakers had to craft a movie for Disney that wasn't allowed to mention or even allude to most of the major characters from the 1939 production. For other less-dedicated types who could have been easily intimidated by such an insurmountable creative gauntlet, this would have presented a deal-killing roadblock. For director Sam Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, it meant reinventing the wheel. They didn't do that, but they didn't embarrass themselves, either. Is this a classic? Not quite. Is it a more than a worthy companion piece to the 1939 effort? Without a doubt, yes.

One of the many joys of "OTGAP" is watching it unfold in a manner that has been wired to our collective psyche since childhood without directly parroting the source. There's no Dorothy, no Tin Man, no Cowardly Lion, no Toto and only a late-in-arriving nod to the Scarecrow.

It opens in 1905 with a square-screened, black and white presentation set in Kansas where traveling magician Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco) is busy bamboozling low-paying audiences, sweet-talking every woman he meets, lying to himself and skating through life as a phony and a fraud. This is a tough sell for a lead character, and Franco gets it right most of the time. For the remainder he plays a mostly unlikeable, self-servicing guy whose principal concern is the preservation of his own hide. When not doing that, he must fake sincerity. It's a tough gig and one given to Franco only after both Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp turned it down.

The key ingredient to the 1939 movie -- and few could reasonably dispute this -- was in the strength of the villain, and "OTGAP" waits as long as possible to reveal its foil. There are three possibilities -- all witches -- played by three past Oscar nominees (one of them a winner): Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz. Even when we think we're sure who is who and in what capacity, we're not, and that is just great, pure unadulterated storytelling.

Not quite as crucial as the villain are Oz's traveling companions. This is where the filmmakers take their biggest chance -- and net their most convincing achievement. First to join is Finley the monkey (Zach Braff, who also shows up early on as Oz's put-upon assistant). Finley resembles the monkeys from the '39 film (he also wears a bell boy uniform) yet distinguishes himself from the new monkeys as they are portrayed as very dangerous and extremely scary CGI baboons.

One of the three witches is a kinda-sorta tagalong. But more than taking up the slack -- and rivaling Dorothy Gale as the most loveable character in both films -- is China Girl. Voiced by the 13-year-old Joey King, China Girl is a porcelain doll that has lost her legs during an attack at the hands of the unknown evil witch and the baboons. With some glue and lots of faux TLC, Oz repairs her, lifts her spirits and in process gives the audience the rallying cry of the film. If you don't immediately and completely fall in love with China Girl, you -- like the Tin Man -- have no heart. She is the spiritual core and one of the most memorable movie characters of all time.

Raimi's ultimate success comes at the end when he and the writers cobble together -- in Frankenstein fashion -- bits and pieces from other "Oz" books by originator L. Frank Baum -- into a cohesive and brilliant whole. If there is anything to find fault with in "OTGAP," it's a slightly overlong running time (130 minutes) and the door left open to another prequel. If they're real smart, the people at Disney will resist that temptation, take heart that they've pulled off the near-impossible and leave it be. In a perfect world that would be the case, but don't count on it. (Disney)