Through all the flying monkeys and other computer-generated whizbangery in the over-amped prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi fails to heed the words of Margaret Hamilton, the original Wicked Witch of the West, that “these things must be done delicately, or you hurt the spell.”
What Raimi delivers is a movie that is loaded with spectacle, but lacking the charm and magic that made the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz” so memorable.
Raimi (who directed the “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” trilogies) borrows a few tricks from the ’39 version, such as setting his Kansas prologue in black-and-white and populating it with actors we’ll see (or hear) later. In Kansas, 1905, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a two-bit magician in a traveling carnival, with the stage name Oz the Great and Powerful, astounding audiences and romancing women at every stop. But when the woman he truly loves, Annie (Michelle Williams), tells him she’s received a marriage proposal, Oscar tells her to take it — because he believes his dreams of greatness would be stymied by settling down in Kansas.
Not long after, Oscar must make a hasty escape from the carnival and ends up in a hot-air balloon that gets caught in a tornado. Oscar finds himself in Oz, which is a full-color — and widescreen — change from life in Kansas.
The first person Oscar meets is Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch who believes Oscar is the wizard whom prophecy says was destined to save Oz from the Wicked Witch. Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), living in the Emerald City, tell Oscar that to fulfill the prophecy, he must kill the Wicked Witch by destroying her wand. Oscar, motivated by the gold that comes with the Wizard title, sets out on this mission — but soon discovers he’s been tricked and that the witch with the wand is Glinda the Good (played by Williams).
The script — by Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole,” “Rise of the Guardians”) — allows Raimi to reimagine the familiar Oz icons, including the flying monkeys and the Yellow Brick Road, as well as other elements from L. Frank Baum’s books that Judy Garland never saw. The most fascinating of these is China Girl, a gorgeously rendered porcelain child (voiced by Joey King) who becomes Oscar’s traveling companion.
But Raimi is more concerned with 3-D trickery (including some monkey close-ups that may scare the youngest viewers) and planting recognizable images and characters — primarily the reveal of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West — than in creating a rousing story that stands up in its own right. Of course, Raimi being Raimi, he also makes room for a funny Bruce Campbell cameo.
The other problem with “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the question of who is a good witch or a bad witch — if you’re using “good” and “bad” to rate the acting talent. Williams is delightful as Glinda, able to slip effortlessly from blissful innocence to maternal shrewdness in a blink of an eye. Weisz is deliciously evil as the scheming Evanora. Kunis, unfortunately, doesn’t have the emotional range needed to portray Theodora’s many moods, around which the entire story pivots.
Between Kunis’ miscasting and Raimi’s heavy hand, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is ultimately robbed of its emotional power and its chance at cinematic greatness.
‘Oz the Great and Powerful’
Visual effects dominate in this in-your-face 3-D return trip down the Yellow Brick Road.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language.
Running time • 130 minutes.