Disney is betting $325 million that audiences, worldwide, are going to flock to see this prequel to Victor Fleming’s classic “Wizard of Oz,” which catapulted Judy Garland to stardom and made L. Frank Baum’s fantasy fable an integral part of American folklore. While Baum wrote 14 Land of Oz novels, he never delved into the wizard’s background. So this is the charlatan-behind-the-curtain’s ‘origin’ story.
It’s 1902 when Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), a conniving, carnival magician, flees from his latest flim-flam in a hot-air balloon that’s enveloped by a Kansas twister. Landing in a river in a fantastic realm called Oz, he’s eagerly greeted by naïve Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that his arrival fulfills a prophecy about a great wizard who has the power to defeat the Wicked Witch. Theodora’s one of a trio of witches that includes her deceitful sister Evanora (Rachel Weitz) and Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). Setting off on the Yellow Brick Road, Oz rescues a wisecracking, winged monkey, Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), and tiny, broken China Doll (voiced by Joey King), who become his traveling companions. Eventually, he not only transforms himself into the wizard that the people have yearned for but also a better human being.
Thinly scripted by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, it’s directed by Sam Raimi as homage to the tone and feel of the 1939 film, starting in black-and-white on a cropped, square screen and expanding to full-screen glorious color. But the story’s inconsistent, fragmented and, obviously, James Franco was no one’s #1 choice; he inherited the role only after Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp turned it down. Utterly lacking in charisma, Franco has neither the necessary charm nor humor.
What saves the iconic Emerald City and sparks the whimsical, nostalgic concept are the visually stunning, multi-dimensional special effects, particularly Finley and China Doll who resonate as fully realized characters.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a spirited 7, a new, family-friendly adventure that’s filled with wonder.