Sam Raimi’s big and splashy but tin-eared prequel Oz the Great and Powerful turns the spirit of the 1937 The Wizard of Oz inside out. Oz is no longer the place where misguided Earth youths like Dorothy can discover how special home really is. This time, Oz — with its expensively imagined rainbow- and candy-colored vistas of cold, computer-generated wonderment — is all things to its titular human interloper. For Oz the man, he would never think to say there’s no place like home, since dreary old black-and-white Kansas offers no home for him. They never appreciated his act back there anyway. The land of Oz, on the other hand, provides the greatest audience he’s ever seen.
When first spotted as a third-rate magician in a second-rate carnival, Oz (James Franco, working hard every second and never quite grasping it) is utterly in his element. He has a clowning assistant to berate (Zach Braff) and new women lining up to play his new assistant. The money is lousy, though. So when he escapes a furious boyfriend by hopping into a hot-air balloon and is swept away to the magical land of Oz, the first thing that really turns his motor over is the sight of a treasure vault in the Emerald City full of gold coins that he can splash around in like Scrooge McDuck.
There’s a nice-seeming witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis, straining yet still not believable), who takes a shine to this interloper whom she thinks is the prophesied hero sent to liberate their land from the rule of an evil witch. Oz’s womanizing ways catch up with him, however. Since he casts adoring eyes at all the witches he comes across (there don’t seem to be any other women in the land) — like Theodora’s glamorous sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and their nemesis, the “good” witch Annie, aka Glinda (Michelle Williams) — he is soon on the outs with the sister witches. Oz bounces about in a panicky fuss, trying to evade homicidal flying monkeys and angling for the tactic that will give him maximum chances of winning the pile of loot with the minimum amount of neck-risking. But then the green-faced witch makes her appearance, war breaks out, and he has to prove he’s the great magician his advertising always claimed.
In the right hands, this could have been a clever start to a new fantasy series. Unleashing the current generation of special-effects artists on L. Frank Baum’s dreamlike world of exaggerated caricatures has an undeniable appeal. But while the occasional invention impresses (the wounded china doll-girl whom Oz fixes with glue), many more do not (Oz’s talking monkey sidekick). Raimi isn’t equal to the task. The Mitchel Kapner and David Lindsey-Abaire script he’s working with has little feel for wit, wonder, or humor. Worse, Raimi invites unfavorable comparisons to the 1937 classic by surrounding his lead not with crackerjack vaudeville comics but a motley squad of mismatched performers. With the exception of Williams, who hits the right note of sugar-dazed decency for Glinda, the cast just wanders stiffly around the lavishly colored CGI backgrounds.
Oz the Great and Powerful is sometimes a beautiful film; and given the hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at this thing, it should be. But the story is so busy hurrying on to its next big expensive scene to bother exploring the strange world that this carnival con-man crash-landed into. Raimi should have taken a hint from the tacky little act that we see Oz performing in the film’s sweet and slapsticky black-and-white opening in Kansas; a little misdirection doesn’t just make the audience ignore the obvious fakery, it also makes them feel they got their money’s worth. The film will make a mint, but it won’t mint memories.