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Originally published March 7, 2013 at 1:00 AM | Page modified March 7, 2013 at 1:46 PM

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‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ returns over the rainbow

A review of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel that explains — 70-plus years after “The Wizard of Oz” — how the wizard came to be there. James Franco stars.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” with James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King. Directed by Sam Raimi, from a screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the books by L. Frank Baum. 127 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Several theaters.

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Sometimes, you need to start a review by explaining what a movie isn’t. Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is not a remake of 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” (a fool’s errand if ever there was one); rather, it’s a prequel that explains who the Wizard is and how he came to the Land of Oz. And no, it isn’t as good as “The Wizard of Oz,” because movie lightning rarely strikes twice. You watch the new movie with “The Wizard of Oz” in your head, because it’s impossible not to, and you miss Judy Garland and Toto and the gentle watercolor quality of the original movie’s Technicolor. But “Oz the Great and Powerful,” though it’s mostly a faint echo of the 1939 movie, has some charms of its own.

Like the original, “Oz the Great and Powerful” starts out in black-and-white in dusty Kansas, switching to color when two-bit carnival magician/con man Oscar Diggs (James Franco) arrives, thanks to a failed balloon voyage, in the Land of Oz. (The black-and-white is the only real justification for the movie’s 3D; there’s a wonderful dioramalike quality to the early scenes, but you mostly forget about the 3D once the movie switches to color.) He’s greeted not by Munchkins — though they make an appearance later — but by a fetchingly red-hatted witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) in leather trousers; this version of Oz is, apparently, rather more fashion-forward than the last. Soon the Wizard is off on a quest to kill the wicked witch — but, with the arrival of Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), it’s not immediately clear to him which witch she might be.

Franco’s an offbeat choice for the role; full of winks and theatrical grins, he’s not so much acting as commenting on the character, and he can’t find much connection with anyone else on screen. (Robert Downey Jr., also considered for the Wizard, has a similar style but might have been a better choice as he’s less remote a presence.) The witches are more successful. Michelle Williams won’t make you forget the marvelously dippy Billie Burke (and, wisely, doesn’t try), but she has a quiet sweetness that’s very appealing. Weisz happily chews the scenery as a not-very-nice witch (“Oh, deah,” she says, with wonderful British understatement, as something dreadful happens); Kunis, whose eyes look like some remarkable special effect, is a fierce, vivid presence.

The movie gets stolen by an adorably wistful china doll (voiced by Joey King, of “Beezus and Ramona”) and by the rollicking color of the Land of Oz — an homage to Technicolor occasionally leaning toward the garish but refreshing in its knock-your-eyes-out boldness. If you hadn’t seen the original “Wizard of Oz,” you might get a little more excited about this one, but what an unfortunate state of affairs that would be. “Oz the Great and Powerful” isn’t a masterpiece for the ages, but an agreeable family film that pleasantly reminds us of something greater — of a land that we heard of, once in a lullaby.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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