"Oz the Great and Powerful" aims for nostalgia in older viewers who grew up on "The Wizard of Oz" and still hold the classic dear while simultaneously enchanting a newer, younger audience. It never really accomplishes either successfully.
A prequel to the groundbreaking 1939 film, "Oz" can be very pretty but also overlong and repetitive, with a plot that's more plodding that dazzling. Director Sam Raimi also is trying to find his own balance here between creating a big-budget, 3-D blockbuster and placing his signature stamp of kitschy, darkly humorous horror. He's done the lavish CGI thing before, with diminishing results, in the "Spider-Man" trilogy, but here he has the daunting task of doing so while mining an even more treasured pop -culture phenomenon.
The results are understandably inconsistent. "Oz" features a couple of fun performances, a handful of witty lines, some clever details and spectacular costumes. And it's all punctuated by a Danny Elfman score that serves as a reminder of how similar this effects-laden extravaganza is to the latter-day (and mediocre) work of Elfman's frequent collaborator, Tim Burton - specifically, 2010's "Alice in Wonderland," also from Disney.
At its center is a miscast James Franco, co-star of Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies, as the circus huckster who becomes the reluctant Wizard of Oz. On the page (in the script from Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire), Franco's selfish, scheming womanizer provides an early glimpse of the famous fraud that Dorothy Gale and her posse of new pals will go on to expose. But Franco seems too boyish for the role; he's neither charismatic nor self-loathing enough and his performance frequently consists of hammy goofing. So when his character does have a change of heart and decides to accept his destiny as a noble and inspiring leader, it rings hollow.
Before he gets there, though, he must journey through the Technicolor-tinted splendor of this wildly dreamlike place - much of which resembles one of those Thomas Kinkade paintings you'd see at the mall - not once but many times, which feels redundant. But then again, so does the whole structure of the film itself.
Like Dorothy, Franco's Oscar Diggs is whisked away from sepia-toned, rural Kansas of 1905 (projected in slightly boxier Academy ratio, a nice touch) through a tornado to the vibrantly hued, magical land that just happens to bear his nickname: Oz. Like Dorothy, he walks along the yellow brick road with some new companions who have ties to his old life back home: a wisecracking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff, channeling Billy Crystal) and a spritely but resourceful china doll (voiced by Joey King).
And like Dorothy, once he reaches his destination, he must face a witch. But which witch is which? You see, there are three, one of whom is the truly wicked one.
First, he meets the beautiful and naive Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he is the wonderful wizard her father, the king, said would come to save Oz in a prophecy before he was killed. Kunis is weirdly stiff and subdued in these early scenes, which squander her inherent spark; later, as Theodora evolves, she screeches in a tone that's reminiscent of her "Family Guy" character, the awkward teenage Meg, screaming at her brother Chris to get out of her room.
Next comes Theodora's sophisticated and deceitful sister, Evanora (a funny, vampy Rachel Weisz), who rules over Emerald City as its protector and fills Oz in on the riches that could be his if he fulfills the prophecy, kills the Wicked Witch and becomes the king.
Finally, there's Glinda the Good Witch, played by a sweetly ethereal Michelle Williams. She also appears in the Kansas prelude as a young woman who's clearly smitten by Oz and hesitant to accept a marriage proposal from another man. (If she marries him, by the way, her last name will be Gale.)
"Oz the Great and Powerful" plays with the notion of making people believe through spectacle and trickery - that what you see is more important than what you actually get. It's Oz's bread and butter and it's a primary tenet of the moviemaking process itself, of course. But this time, something is missing in the magic.
"Oz the Great and Powerful," a Disney release, is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Running time: 130 minutes. Two stars out of four.