Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a $190-million prequel to the turn-of-the-century L. Frank Baum 14-book series. Directed by Sam Raimi, the film is bloated in length and overstuffed with digital 3-D wizardry, yet somehow manages to be a horse of a pleasing -- if not particularly different -- color.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is a womanizing carnival magician with a Bucky Beaver smile and an ego outsized for the two-bit show he and his wary assistant (Zach Braff) shill to the Kansas yokels. When a tornado blusters his hot-air balloon out of the black-and-white prairies and into the candy-coated CG realm of Oz, Oscar is mistaken for a real wizard capable of freeing the land’s good people from the Wicked Witch of the West. He uncomfortably obliges, largely because he can’t turn down a pretty face, this one belonging to sexy Theodora (Mila Kunis), the Sporty Spice of Oz witches.
Theodora has two witch sisters, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), a raven-haired beauty who guards the Emerald City’s treasure, and Glinda (Michelle Williams), a character whose benevolence needs no explanation. The three sisters share some drama. Theodora and Evanora have cast out Glinda, claiming that she killed their father. It’s not a spoiler to state the obvious: Theodora and Evanora -- the bitter brunettes! -- prove to be the conniving ones, while Glinda in all her sleekly swan-feathered glory is simply trying to emancipate the Ozians from her siblings’ tyrannical rule. She sees Oscar’s shortcomings, but knows if ever a wiz there was, this wizard will have to do.
The imaginative simplicity of Baum’s work is largely missing here, but “Oz the Great and Powerful” does nod to MGM’s 1939 “The Wizard of Oz,” to the extent that tricky rights legalities allow. Kansas characters reappear in Oz in different guises, and the costuming of the Winkies (with “Evil Dead” star Bruce Campbell making his signature Raimi cameo) is an almost exact homage. Scary forest critters watch Oscar and his friends with psychedelic night vision, which recalls the warped images in Miss Gulch-turned-Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton’s crystal ball. There’s also a confusing hodgepodge of borrowed references from other fare, including an evil green apple (huh?) and a Munchkin song-and-dance routine that’s more Oompa Loompa than Oz.
Yet the film has an amiably weird, sort-of soul of its own. The most elegant sequence happens in China Town, a decimated land made up of broken dishware, where Oscar meets the fragile if plucky China Girl (Joey King). Her cracked porcelain skin and limbs which creak like scraped pottery are a marvel of animation, even if the sentimental message behind the character drags a bit. Another successful addition is Finley (voiced by Braff), the cute flying monkey who swears allegiance to Oscar. He isn’t an evil flying monkey (they show up later -- winged gorillas in the mist), and his jokey demeanor and puppyish face vaguely recall some of the better animal sidekicks from Disney’s animation renaissance in the early 1990s.
Williams, Kunis and Weisz ably add old-fashioned charisma to a world both beautiful and distractingly artificial. These ladies have green-screen presence, a useful talent for this filmmaking age. Williams radiates sweetness and observant care, appropriate for Glinda. Kunis and Weisz make for a pleasingly bitchy duo, adding flare to their characters’ Joan Crawford-eseque motivations. (Here the Wicked Witch -- whose identity I won’t reveal despite it being readily available on IMDb -- is pissed because Oscar plays her like a fiddle and then throws her over for the more peaceable Glinda.) When both beauties’ true natures ultimately come shrieking and roaring through, we see a refreshing hint of Raimi’s “Evil Dead” past. Less refreshingly, we’re reminded yet again that young/pretty is good and old/ugly is bad. Sigh.
Meanwhile Franco, like his character, is a letdown that may fool some people. He’s miscast, and reminds me of a class clown in a high school play, over-acting while grinning to himself about his most recent attention-getting stunt. This is truly where “Oz the Great and Powerful” falters, putting its faith in a hero who, while genial, lacks the emotional investment of his three leading ladies. It’s a pity, because this Oz is likable enough to deserve a worthy wizard.