It had to be a daunting task to put together a prequel to one of the most widely known and seen movies of all time, and Disney, along with such talents as director Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead” and the first round of “Spider-Man” films) and writers Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) gave it a good try.
But when you try to match up with a classic, expectations soar and the end product needs to be nearly perfect to just get a passing grade from many observers.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” seems to be hovering around a C+. It is pleasant enough, certainly visually appealing, and younger audiences will like it. Older people, especially those whose childhood included many viewings of “The Wizard of Oz,” may be more difficult to satisfy.
James Franco has been targeted by critics as being miscast as Oscar Diggs, a struggling traveling circus magician and con man who is literally blown from Kansas via a tornado to the land of Oz, where he is the reluctant hero that eventually becomes the Wizard of Oz. Here Franco seems to be channeling Johnny Depp, who could mail in this role of the likeable scoundrel (Capt. Jack Sparrow, anyone?).
Franco tries, but either the script throttled him or editing hammered any significant character development, but whatever, he fails to to find a core — his Oz is neither despicable enough to loath nor honorable enough to garner sympathy. He just seems too lightweight and ordinary to be thrust into the vital role of saving a kingdom from evil.
Mila Kunis also has been criticized for her portrayal of Theodora, at first a sweet naive witch who amidst perceived betrayals and a broken heart transforms into the green-faced Wicked Witch of the West. Once again a fast-track plot development — a real whirlwind romance between Oz and Theodora that is doomed — zips by without any real emotional punch.
Kunis gets upended by Rachel Weisz as Theodora’s conniving sister Evanora, who behind her hopeful demeanor has laid out the real blueprint of misery in Oz.
Franco, meanwhile, is upstaged by a porcelain china doll (voice of Joey King) and to a lesser extent by Finley the flying monkey (Zach Braff).
Coming off much better is Michelle Williams as Glinda, the outcast and falsely accused “wicked” witch who displays enormous perceptiveness and patience in trying to mold Oz into the wizard she firmly believes he will become.
The story is a familiar one of redemption: a person meandering along a path of underachievement while cultivating dreams of glory who is given an opportunity for greatness but has to be shoved repeatedly in that direction before responding.
It is a nice tale of good prevailing over evil amid a backdrop of superb visual effects with a few tender and funny moments thrown in.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” had a $200 million bankroll and likely will make money, if not in the U.S., certainly worldwide. Viewers should go in with modest expectations. This “Oz” is not a masterpiece, but it is functional as a visually gorgeous embellishment of a classic story.