It takes nerve to tackle something as beloved as The Wizard of Oz, well known to most of us from the 1939 film. But director Sam Raimi already survived three iterations of Spider-Man, another cultural touchstone with a rabid fan base.
Now Raimi — who in rarer circles is himself beloved for his kinetic and influential Evil Dead trilogy — has teamed up with Disney to give us Oz the Great and Powerful, a prequel to the classic film. Unfortunately, this venture is a mixed bag, a jumble of awesome and awful that cannot be easily separated.
In 1905 Kansas, we meet Oscar, a.k.a. Oz (James Franco), a struggling trickster of a magician who, via a hot-air-balloon-in-a-tornado, winds up in the Land of Oz. There, he meets a comely witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that the arrival of a wizard named Oz has been foretold. The pair travels to the Emerald City, where Oscar gets caught up in the political machinations between Theodora's sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and a witch of the hinterlands named Glinda (Michelle Williams). Too many witches, and the battle lines are drawn: Can Oscar rise above self-interest, back the right witch and put the Land of Oz on the right path?
What works in Oz is the wondrous world it creates: Like its antecedent, the film begins in black-and-white Kansas, and expands to glorious, wide-screen color when the balloon touches down. It's a candy-colored CGI spectacle, brimming with the familiar (yellow brick road, poppy field) and new, such as vast landscapes filled with forests and waterfalls. The 3-D is well done, and worth getting the glasses for. On the human side: Williams and Weisz rise above the thin script, delivering entertaining performances.
But no amount of fantasy or added dimension can make up for the dreadful miscasting of Oscar and Theodora. At its heart, Oz is about these two characters becoming their true selves, be they good or bad. Franco looks like he's barely trying, unable to find the happy space between depicting a character inclined to be smarmy and just being smarmy. (Despite his mugging, Franco is upstaged repeatedly by the expressive work of a monkey and a china doll — which, as CGI creations, technically have no faces at all.) Theodora's critical transformation can best be summed up as Kunis shifting from a role she's flat at, to a role she is just flat-out terrible at.
Oz seems like a cool place to visit, all gorgeous wonders and spooky fun. But no amount of movie magic can make this wizard anybody we'd want to travel with.