You wanted a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” and you got one! It’s a very popular novel and stage musical called “Wicked.” Also, here is this, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a marvelously candy-colored and overall-pretty-fun-nothing-great-but-it’s-all-right fantasy adventure. It will remind you of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but it’s much better than that. It will remind you of “The Wizard of Oz,” too (obviously), but it doesn’t begin to approach that film’s magic and whimsy (obviously).
With a story patterned after the beloved classic and filled with homages to it, the new film is meant to fit in the same fictional universe and blend in as a companion piece — except for the 74 years of technological advancements between them, of course. “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by horror and “Spider-Man” master Sam Raimi, is a CGI dream, bursting with vividly colored special effects and impossible movie magic. The story, not based on one of L. Frank Baum’s 14 “Oz” novels but an original one by screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is less impressive, though — earnest but shallow, and with a strangely regressive core: wickedness comes to the land of Oz because a woman gets jilted.
James Franco plays Oscar, nicknamed Oz, a slick magician and ladykiller working the Midwest carnival circuit in 1905, frustrated by the lack of big-time opportunities. Transported via tornado to the magical land that coincidentally bears his name, he encounters a good witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who says he might be the fulfillment of a prophecy saying a wizard named Oz would fall from the sky and restore the kingdom to its glory. Oz knows he has no actual wizardly powers, but he likes the idea of being everyone’s hero. He also likes Theodora.
Like Dorothy before him (well, after him), Oz picks up a few friends in the course of his quest to fulfill his destiny. A flying monkey in a bellhop costume (voiced by Zach Braff) becomes his loyal sidekick, and they’re joined by a living porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King) whose china village was smashed by a wicked witch. Which of the witches is the wicked witch is a matter of some dispute among the characters, if not exactly a huge mystery to viewers. Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), and the fair-haired Glinda (Michelle Williams) are the only other witches in the film, and we know how Glinda turns out, so that narrows it down.
Anyway, the more important issue is what Oz will make of himself. The people of the land (who include Munchkins, as well as Tinkers capable of making lifelike scarecrows, wink wink) have faith in him, unaware that he’s a fraud. He isn’t a wizard — “but can you make them believe you’re wizard enough?” is the question he’s asked. The story gets muddy here. Does Oz want to rule this land, or does he want to get home to Kansas? (Fans of Raimi’s “Army of Darkness” will notice many parallels.) Is he striving to be “king of Oz,” or is “wizard of Oz” a different title? Why did the death of the previous king (father of Theodora and Evanora) leave such a power vacuum?
For me, the movie works just well enough to be recommendable. The story could be simpler and more straightforward (and there’s no good reason for it not to be), but the visuals are dazzling, and the conclusion is satisfying. Admittedly, my fondness for “The Wizard of Oz” plays a crucial role: many of the things I like about “Oz the Great and Powerful” are things only a “Wizard of Oz” fan would appreciate. Then again, who isn’t a “Wizard of Oz” fan?
B- (2 hrs., 10 min.; )