It’s an ambitious idea to re-imagine one of the most venerable and iconic stories in cinematic history, as attempted by Oz: The Great and Powerful without much success.
Set in the same world as The Wizard of Oz, this is a prequel of sorts, a big-budget story of redemption about a charlatan illusionist from Kansas who becomes the leader of the fantasy world of munchkins, witches and magic forest creatures. In other words, it starts at the other end of the yellow brick road.
There’s no Dorothy in this story, nor is there a tin man, a cowardly lion or a scarecrow. Instead, we get a flying monkey, an anthropomorphic china girl and a pint-sized valet as the charming and occasionally wisecracking sidekicks.
The result has much of the spectacle of the 1939 film based on the series of books by L. Frank Baum, but is missing the same sense of excitement and wonder.
James Franco stars as a smug con man, circa 1905, who takes off in a hot-air balloon after his traveling magician act makes more enemies than friends. He is whisked away to the parallel universe of Oz, where it’s immediately presumed that the newcomer is actually a heralded wizard who will save their kingdom from the Wicked Witch of the West.
He wants the fame and fortune that accompany such a title, but needs to first figure out which of three witches – Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) or Glinda (Michelle Williams) – he needs to kill in order to claim the throne.
Versatile director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) is handed a difficult task, given that his film will inevitably be compared to its well-known predecessor. Perhaps in homage, the film opens with a black-and-white sequence that segues into a tornado catapulting the protagonist into color. Of course it doesn’t have quite the same effect as the Technicolor breakthrough of 74 years ago.
Raimi’s film is visually striking, however, with vibrant colors and a dazzling array of seamless special effects that make excellent use of the 3D technology. Yet the tendency of the action scenes to resemble a video game or thrill ride reflect the project’s style-over-substance mentality.
The script is the real problem, lacking in humor and wit (not to mention jaunty musical numbers) and emphasizing the type of sensory overload that seems to pass for family entertainment these days.
Rated PG, 130 minutes.