The dearly timeless 1939 touchstone that is “The Wizard of Oz” casts a long shadow on Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” but this prequel isn’t trying to outdo the greatness and power of that iconic classic because, simply, it cannot be done. It’s less nightmarish than the head-scratchingly underrated 1985 follow-up “Return to Oz” and has nothing to do with another “Oz” prequel, the hit Broadway show “Wicked.” But if anyone should take the risk, who better than director Sam Raimi, the Man Behind the Curtain of the “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” trilogies, to visualize the magical place from L. Frank Baum’s fourteen-volume “Oz” series and tell how the Wizard came to Oz before Dorothy Gale and Toto.
In dusty Kansas, 1905, traveling circus magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco) wants to achieve greatness, but he’s a womanizing con artist, seducing women with music boxes as presents. After The One That Got Away (Michelle Williams) comes to ask him if she should reject the proposal of another man named Gale (any relation to Dorothy?), Oscar escapes the wrath of a sideshow strongman in a hot air balloon, only to run into a tornado that sucks him into a wormhole. (In a beautifully loving homage to the past, vibrant Technicolor seeps into the black & white and the narrow Academy aspect ratio widens.) Oscar winds up in the fantastical land of Oz, immediately being greeted by the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed “good witch” who quickly falls for Oscar’s charm. She is certain that he’s the great and powerful wizard who has come to save the people of Oz, taking him to the Emerald City. There, he’s welcomed by Theodora’s doubtful sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the land’s royal adviser who promises to be servile if she can witness his magic. Tempted with a vault of gold coins, the bamboozler sees it as his opportunity to prove his greatness, but in order to fulfill the land’s prophecy and be crowned king, Oscar must defeat the Wicked Witch. So, out of the two sisters and Glinda (Williams), which witch will turn wicked?
In what should be greatly working every time and all the time, “Oz the Great and Powerful” just works some of the time. First off, the old-timey opening credit sequence is a delightful marvel in its design as a paper-cutout theater, aided by the music orchestrations of Danny Elfman (who hasn’t scored for Raimi since 2004’s “Spider-Man 2”). Secondly, the film proper looks like a million, well, two-hundred million bucks. So many glossy, big-budgeted productions strive to be magical and end up feeling soulless and overblown (Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”) or impersonal and sparkless (last week’s “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but this one is pretty wondrous and magical with as much spirit as spectacle. When Oscar first lands in Oz, we feel the awe and wonder of a dazzling kaleidoscope of a river with roaring waterfalls, brightly colored flowers, lily pads, and toothy river fairies. A step up from Underland in “Alice in Wonderland,” Oz itself is an immersive, spatially defined world that’s imagined with grandeur and doesn’t just look like its human actors are surrounded in the bells and whistles of fakey green screens and plastic CGI. Sure, the landscapes can look like mattes from afar and the horses in the background of the Yellow Brick Road look fake as can be, but “China Town” is a sad, shattered town in ruin, the dark forest is spooky and atmospheric, and Glinda’s Castle is resplendence at its finest.
Franco can’t really sell the goodness of Oz underneath all the goofy, smarmy smirking, but no one can fault him for trying, as he still makes for an engaging trickster. However, when we’re supposed to feel his arc from selfish charlatan full of self-doubt to a good-hearted man who will lead the magical land, the emotional through-line just feels contrived and undercooked. If he only had a heart! Splendidly sweet and dreamily luminous, Williams was born to play the airy, pure-hearted Glinda. In the other two witchy roles, Weisz has the most juice, pitching her performance at the right level of vampy fun as the calculating Evanora, and Kunis, while bewitching in the early going, has only two notes to play as Theodora: naivetÃ© and heartbroken anger. Unfortunately, too, Theodora’s individual scenes with Evanora and Oz feel trimmed from the final cut.
A green, clawed hand scratching a marble table is a creepy touch, but disappointment sets in after the grand reveal of the Wicked Witch of the West in her cackling, green-skinned glory. The actress in question is out of her depth, screeching and coming off more as a jilted, jealous one-night stand than a threatening monster. She just looks like she’s donning the Margaret Hamilton make-up with some computerized tweaks, sporting a tight-fitting, sexed-up dress, and cackling like Roseanne Barr. She even gets to say, “I’ll get you, my pretty . . . one.”
Surprisingly, the tactile CG/puppet characters, voiced by Zach Braff and Joey King, divert and resonate the most. Both show up early in the monochromatic Kansas introduction and are then realized as Oz’s companions, respectively, a winged monkey named Finley in a bellhop suit and China Girl, a porcelain doll who fittingly resembles Lewis Carroll’s Alice and has lost her family from the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys. Braff lends plenty of amusing asides as the cute simian and King is feisty, fragile, moving, and just plain adorable. A requisite Bruce Campbell cameo is also a bonus (can you spot him?).
Steering clear of copyright issues with the trademarks of “The Wizard of Oz” (which was produced by MGM and now owned by Warner Bros.), screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire come up with a pretty standard narrative but sprinkle enough nods and callbacks to the ’39 original for nostalgia purposes. Merry munchkins and the Winkie Guards? They’re here, too. Despite this being his most family-friendly outing, Raimi’s boundless imagination seems muffled a bitâ€”this could have been a more frightening example of those PG-rated films Disney used to put outâ€”but it’s all fun and joyful enough. His kitschy-horror sensibilities and nutty signature touches certainly come out, especially in dizzying camera angles and a wand-to-wand battle with a witch transformation right out of “Drag Me to Hell.” Before that, there’s a nice sense of danger with the baboon minions flying into the poppy fields and a grand, good-fun climax, in which Oz proves himself as an inventor, illusionist, and leader that the people of Oz have been waiting for all along. It’s also a salute to Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini (two of Oz’s idols), as well as early movie magic.
Witch warts and allâ€”one miscast witch and one inconsistent performanceâ€””Oz the Great and Powerful” is earnestly played and entertaining throughout, without any of the cynicism or ironic jokiness of past family fare. Even if it won’t endure as a classic and there are no ruby slippers to be found, Raimi’s stand-alone piece fits as a good, not great, companion piece to the cherished film that really makes us feel at home.
127 min., rated PG.
Grade: B –