"Oz the Great and Powerful" is entirely serviceable family entertainment.
Problem is, serviceable doesn't quite cut it when you're talking about the magical land of Oz, one of our most cherished childhood destinations. And because of our affection for the L. Frank Baum books and the 1939 screen musical, we demand a lot from a return visit. Not only do we expect to have our childlike sense of wonderment restored, but we want to see the proper reverence paid to what has come before.
That's what the colorful "Oz the Great and Powerful" attempts to do. It's an earnest and obvious prequel that focuses on an unsuspecting huckster "wizard" (James Franco) and the three witches (played by Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) intrigued by him. Which of the women ultimately goes green? That's part of the fun here.
Given the expectations, it's a challenging assignment to please generations old and new, and director Sam Raimi (2002's "Spider-Man") does his almighty best. The screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abiare hits highs and lows, while Raimi struggles to rise above the blockbuster magnitude of this overblown Disney production with its grandiose, over-the-top CGI, 3-D effects and its straining attempts to rekindle nostalgic magic. Since the original Judy Garland film was produced by another studio, the filmmakers took deliberate care to emulate what was on the page, not the screen, perhaps hindering what Raimi might have achieved.
Watching "Oz" unfold, you can almost sense the presence of a studio guy lingering on the sidelines, clipboard in hand as he ticks off all the calculated boxes that will guarantee this $200 million baby will be a hit. No need to worry, Disney. This is no "John Carter" flop, just a film that could have been better.
Oh, it has its moments of movie magic, in moving scenes where the orphaned miniature porcelain China Girl -- the film's best character -- appears. But too often, "Oz" caves to blockbuster conventions, preoccupied with creating a visual template to make Oz magnificent when Oz's magnificence has more to do with the heart and the soul rather than the spectacle of large blooming flowers and cascading waterfalls.
"Oz" starts off putting its worst foot forward. An overly long black-and-white sequence set at the Kansas traveling carnival relies too heavily on juvenile humor and is ill-paced and choppy. It leans on Franco's charm as Oscar Diggs (aka Oz), a flirty carny magician with commitment issues and magic tricks up his sleeve. Franco is miscast in the lead, lacking a needed edge, and because of that, he lapses too often on his Cheshire catlike grin and twinkly eyes.
You expect things will pick up once the magician bolts in a hot-air balloon and, after twirling around through a tornado, plunks down in Oz. But too much CGI is thrown at us. We need more breathing room as we ease back into the surreally magical world's comforting folds.
It's here that the up-and-coming wizard encounters the various witches, and the performance from each actress is quite good. As the clingy, fashion-forward Theodora, Kunis is seductive and volatile. Williams is luminous and conveys a doe-eyed innocence that captures Glinda. But it's Weisz as the control-freaky and ambitious Evanora who has the most fun. The exceptional costumes by Gary Jones and Michael Kutsch and the makeup artistry certainly help set the tone, and when one witch goes green, the actress playing the role gets into the right spirit.
While on the road to save this world from the clutches of the Wicked Witch, Oz meets up with some new faces. One of the best new acquaintances is the winged monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who becomes indebted to the new wizard. Braff provides the comic relief and has nice timing.
But besides China Girl, no one else sent me over the rainbow. I, like many, will always prefer the company that Dorothy kept in the 1939 musical: The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and Toto, too. And while I enjoyed traveling down the Yellow Brick Road once again with the wizard and Raimi, I left this "Oz" feeling one thing: that I wanted to watch the Judy Garland movie to see some real cinematic magic.
* * 1/2
(for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)
Cast: James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis
Director: Sam Raimi
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes