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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 4.0° F  Fair
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In Oz the Great and Powerful, a lowly trickster becomes a VIP
A star is born
Franco makes an odd wizard.
Franco makes an odd wizard.

"If you can make them believe, then you're wizard enough," a witch named Glinda says to a con man in Oz the Great and Powerful. Though this scammer is supposed to be the savior of her people, she senses his discomfort. But the real question isn't whether he can play the part of a hero. It's whether he's "wizard enough" to satisfy viewers, most of whom are accustomed to MGM's 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz.

The answer is not a resounding yes or no. This Disney prequel charts its own course, and, for the most part, that's a good thing. Its blend of familiar elements and new ones creates a valid origin story about how the wizard arrived in Oz and gained his throne before Dorothy and Toto came calling. It does nothing to besmirch the original film, yet it diverges just enough to intrigue the audience and appease intellectual-property attorneys.

Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, Spider-Man) brings special visual panache to this project. Like the MGM version, the 3D film begins in black-and-white Kansas and then explodes into vivid color once we get to Oz. Raimi's Oz is a land of babbling waterfalls, violent tornados and enormous flowers whose tendrils seem to reach into the audience. His camera swoops in at odd angles that frame this enchanted world anew.

Less creativity is discernible in the script department. The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is based on L. Frank Baum's original novel rather than the earlier film. It's burdened with lots of clunky and repetitive dialogue.

The script's inadequacies hamper the film's performances. A couple of the actors are on shaky ground to begin with, in particular James Franco. He seems miscast as Oz, harboring more of a smirk than a twinkle in his eye. As the Wicked Witch of the West, Mila Kunis is undone by some mechanical dialogue, which saps the magic from the story. On the other hand, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz deliver some of the finest work of their careers as Glinda and fellow witch Evanora. Meanwhile, Zach Braff and Joey King are memorable as Frank and China Girl, some new characters created for this film.

Oz vacillates between visual wonders and earthbound duds, but there are probably enough perks to make viewers believe the story is worthwhile. Though the ruby slippers are missing, something makes this movie feel like home.

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