By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Somewhere under the rainbow, way down low, there’s a prequel I’ve heard of, straining to be so-so.
Apologies to lyricist EY Harburg, but Oz the Great and Powerful, an effects-heavy origin story that connects to the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz, lacks greatness despite powerful visual fireworks.
The fantastical universe that L. Frank Baum created in his many novels (especially his 1900 work, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) serves as inspiration here even more extensively than the iconic 1939 movie.
James Franco plays Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a small-time, womanizing circus magician, grifter, and wizard-wannabe in Kansas, all of whose illusions can be easily and logically explained in simple scientific terms.
But when a twister swoops him up, up, and away and plunks him, his flying monkey sidekick (voiced by Zach Braff), and their hot-air balloon down in the merry old land of Oz — yep, it even shares his name! — Diggs realizes that the Emerald City is a place where magic actually exists, and insinuates himself as the local wizard.
There he meets three witches: Glinda, Theodora, and Evanora, played respectively by Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, and Rachel Weisz.
Sisters Theodora and Evanora believe that Oz is the fulfillment of a prophecy about a wizard becoming king and saving the realm from a wicked witch, so he just plays along.
But then Glinda, who sees right through him, explains to him about the sad plight of most of the oppressed citizens of Oz.
Versatile director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy, The Evil Dead, The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, For Love of the Game), the film’s behind-the-curtain wizard, opens his film in black-and-white and a different aspect ratio as a tribute to the earlier film. He’s out to engage our sense of wonder and enchantment, and he does so early on.
But any hopes we have of truly strong emotional engagement, having been teased with the possibility in the early reels, are eventually dashed.
Instead Raimi, legally restricted from replicating particular elements from the original film, delivers an eye-popping magic show, appropriately enough. But it remains a work of almost purely visual razzle-dazzle.
The adapted screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is, in a lot of ways, a rehash of The Wizard of Oz, but from the Wizard’s point of view rather than Dorothy’s. There is perhaps too much that qualifies as nostalgia and not enough in the way of narrative spark or character delineation.
But Raimi does manage to deliver a modicum of fun (although less than intended) with the “Which witch is which?” guessing game that will have viewers trying to identify the actual Wicked Witch of the West.
Williams, Kunis, and Weisz are acceptable as the witches, but are only minimally bewitching, never getting the opportunity to establish much more than their colorful costumes and makeup.
Similarly, the miscast Franco (who played Harry Osborn in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) is serviceable despite some inappropriate smirking, but is in somewhat over his head, not only seeming anachronistically modern but lacking the presence or charisma to carry Oz the Great and Powerful.
We find ourselves thinking about how much more a consummately skilled leading man might have brought to the proceedings.
In general, despite the fact that the film is meant to stand alone, the more familiarity you have with The Wizard of Oz, the more frequently and directly will this prequel speak to you.
And be advised that although this family fantasy is rated PG, there’s enough of a scare quotient to suggest that a rating of PG-13 might have been more appropriate. In short, be careful with the little ones.
So there’s no place like 2½ stars out of 4. With real big ruby slippers to fill, the fantastical fable Oz the Great and Powerful entertains despite coming up a bit short on the brains, courage, and especially heart that the wizard is so fond of distributing.