In Oz the Great and Powerful, a two-bit traveling circus magician convinces an entire kingdom that he is the wizard prophesized to deliver them from the wicked witch who killed their king and cast a dark spell over the land. Meanwhile, behind the camera, director Sam Raimi uses his own cinematic sleight of hand to try and convince us that what we're watching is something more than a slightly altered take on The Wizard of Oz. The similarities between the two films are so pronounced that Raimi's effort feels as much like a loose remake as it does a belated prequel to Victor Fleming's beloved 1939 classic; while screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner slyly incorporate characters from L. Frank Baum's other Oz tales into the film, it's a shame that they didn't do the same with regards to the story line, given that the author created such a rich and immersive mythology throughout the course of his writing. Then again, it's no secret to moviegoers that Hollywood -- and Disney in particular -- is loathe to break from a proven formula, ensuring that some of Baum's most imaginative stories are likely to remain relegated to the printed page.
Shady illusionist Oscar Diggs (James Franco) enchants curious audiences at a Kansas circus. A self-professed con man, he's a fast-talking performer who aspires to follow in the footsteps of inventors like Thomas Edison. Oscar is being chased across the circus grounds by the rampaging Strongman when a tornado blows in and everyone runs for cover. Seeing a hot-air balloon as his only chance for escape, the illusionist jumps in and cuts himself free. Magically transported to the wondrous world of Oz, he soon encounters Theodora (Mila Kunis), a temperamental witch who surmises that he is the wizard named after their land (Oscar's nickname is Oz), foretold to fall from the sky, defeat a nasty witch, and ascend to the throne. Theodora takes Oscar to the Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a powerful witch who reveals that he cannot become the rightful ruler of Oz until he's accomplished his mission. Later, as Oscar and his new flying-monkey companion Finley (voice of Zach Braff) prepare to face their fearsome enemy, they're joined by the fragile but fearless China Girl (voice of Joey King) and benevolent witch Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams), who helps them prepare for the arduous battle ahead. Together with the brave people of Oz, Oscar draws up a plan to rid the land of evil once and for all, and become the great and powerful king who will rule from his throne in the Emerald City.
From the monochromatic opening in a Kansas fair to the color shift that occurs when Oscar's hot-air balloon drifts into Oz, it's glaringly obvious that Raimi and company have chosen to play it safe instead of taking us any deeper into Baum's extensive universe. As a result, we're left with little more than spectacle as the film goes through a familiar set of motions with just a few minor twists. Fortunately for us, spectacle is something that Raimi truly excels at, and by bringing a noted sense of energy to the proceedings, he manages to stave off the sneaking suspicions of redundancy that start to seep in as the plot begins to unfold. Colorful and majestic, Raimi's interpretation of Oz is genuinely awe-inspiring, but while the practical sets go a long way toward making the otherworldly realm believable, the numerous special effects range from surprisingly shoddy (note the colorful horses as Oscar and Finley first set down the Yellow Brick Road) to positively mesmerizing (the cracked China Girl is a sight to behold, and one of the film's most memorable supporting characters). Meanwhile, even when the writers are looking back to Baum's original stories for inspiration, the choices they make at times weigh the movie down rather than bolster it. The decision to incorporate two evil witches into the mix, for example, feels superfluous. Given that the film clocks in at just over two hours, it's precisely these kinds of extraneous details that could have been excised to keep things moving at a satisfying pace. Considering that Oz the Great and Powerful hits a notable lull in the second act, it's surprising this wasn't addressed in the early stages of development.
Overcrowding aside, the cast of Oz the Great and Powerful all perform admirably, even if Franco does flash his smarmy smile a few too many times for comfort. Weisz is suitably malevolent, Kunis can cackle with the best of them, and Williams offers a comforting counterbalance to the diabolical duo making a magical power grab. Somewhat surprisingly, however, it's the aforementioned China Girl who makes the biggest impression, not only for her striking design and King's capable voice work, but also because of the tragic backstory that makes her so fragile and endearing. Although it does manage to evoke a warm sense of nostalgia in the early Kansas scenes, composer Danny Elfman's score (his first for Raimi since their falling out during Spider-Man 2) is instantly forgettable background filler, a bit of a sad revelation given the rich musical legacy associated with The Wizard of Oz.
Fortunately for everyone involved, Raimi has enough gas in his creative tank to keep Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire's script afloat in the run-up to Oscar's showstopping performance in the big finale (a genuinely exciting sequence that cleverly sets the stage for his antics in The Wizard of Oz), though even then, an awkward romance between Oscar and Glinda comes off as contrived. Perhaps one day producers will summon the courage to fully explore the expansive world created by Baum and enjoyed by generations of readers. Until then, odds are the glimmering specter of his most popular story will continue to hang over every adaptation to come. While that can make for exciting viewing in the hands of capable filmmakers like Raimi, it's no substitute for originality -- a characteristic that Baum's tales deliver in abundance.