Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Expensive 3D prequel to the indelible 'Wizard of Oz' fails to capture the heartwarming spirit of the original and leans too heavily on an uninspired lead performance by James Franco.

The Library of Congress has named the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz the most-watched film in movie history. So the Disney prequel Oz the Great and Powerful inherits massive brand recognition, an asset that’s also a huge liability in terms of audience expectations. This mega-budget production takes advantage of all the resources of modern digital technology that even Frank Morgan’s original Wizard couldn’t have dreamed of, and the production/CGI design and 3D effects are often dazzling. But fans of the Judy Garland musical will be crushingly disappointed by a movie that succumbs to the bombast of so many tentpoles today and captures none of the charm of the 74-year-old family favorite. To paraphrase the Tin Man: If it only had more heart…

A letdown was probably inevitable with the decision to focus on the backstory of the Wizard, here introduced in a black-and-white, 1.33-ratio opening sequence as conniving circus magician and womanizer Oscar Diggs (James Franco). Like Dorothy Gale in the 1939 movie, Oscar, fleeing an angry strongman in his hot-air balloon, is swept up by a Kansas tornado and plopped down in the surreally colorful world of Oz. There, he’s greeted as the prophesied savior who will save the land from the terrifying reign of the Wicked Witch. Oscar acquires a sidekick in Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), a talking monkey who sounds just like his frustrated assistant back home, and enjoys a brief fling with Theodora (Mila Kunis), a beautiful witch who escorts him to eye-popping Emerald City, where her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) presides as ruler.

With a vast fortune in gold and gems promised him if he dispatches the Wicked Witch, Oscar sets off for the Dark Forest. But he soon discovers he’s been palling around with the wrong witches; it’s Evanora who’s the villain, not the good and pure Glinda (Michelle Williams) he encounters.

Warner Bros., which now owns the rights to the Wizard of Oz movie, reportedly policed the Disney prequel for copyright infringement to the point of requiring a different shade of green for the character who becomes the Wicked Witch we all remember. Though no ruby slippers are to be found here, Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire’s screenplay retains some familiar touchstones: the tornado, the diminutive Munchkins, the yellow brick road, the poppy fields, the airborne broom emitting plumes of smoke. The flying monkeys are now uglier, nastier but indistinguishable winged baboons. And filling in for wholesome Dorothy is China Girl, a feisty porcelain doll Oscar rescues and repairs after a devastating attack on “China Town.”

All this could have been a welcome re-imagining of Oz if not for some unfortunate choices by director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy). First and foremost is the casting of Franco, who simply doesn’t have the wit and flair to pull off the role of a wily but irresistible con man. Franco’s performance consists mainly of wide-eyed amazement and sheepish grins, hardly enough to sustain interest over the course of a two-hour-plus extravaganza. Former “Scrubs” star Braff mercifully fills some of that void with some OK comic relief. Williams makes a sweet Glinda, Weisz is forceful as Evanora, but Kunis can’t compete with the memory of the immortal Margaret Hamilton as the movies’ most delightfully wicked witch.

Raimi also struggles with tone. Where Victor Fleming’s classic skillfully juggled endearing musical entertainment and primal moments of terror, Raimi flatfootedly resorts to generic, overblown, supernatural showdowns: Do we really want to see Glinda hurled to and fro like a Marvel action figure?

To its credit, the script does come up with an ingenious battle plan that fulfills Oscar’s dream to be a combination of Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini, and it’s fun to see just how the Wizard of Oz acquired his illusory power over Emerald City. But that satisfying wrap-up isn't enough to compensate for the movie’s many deficits. The only repeat viewings we see in our crystal ball involve Judy, Ray, Jack and Bert.