Sometimes sweet, sometimes scary, sometimes sour, "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a film that doesn't know its own mind. A partially effective jumble whose elements clash rather than cohere, this solid but not spectacular effort stubbornly refuses to catch fire until it's almost too late.
As directed by Sam Raimi, who departed from his horror film roots ("The Evil Dead") to turn out the high-grossing, family-friendly "Spider-Man" trilogy, "Oz" exhibits some of the same tonal duality that marks its maker's career. Despite the considerable amount of time, effort and cash invested in it, this film remains an unfocused fairy tale with the nasty bits left in, which is not always a good idea.
As a prequel of sorts to the beloved Judy Garland-starring "The Wizard of Oz," designated by the Library of Congress as the most-watched film ever, this version certainly has giant shoes to fill. Copyright issues prevent "Oz the Great and Powerful" from mentioning signature moments from the 1939 film, such as Dorothy's iconic ruby slippers, but the new movie does feature munchkins, a magician (James Franco) and a trio of witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) as it fills us in on how the world order Dorothy discovered came into being.
What "Oz" does do well, and this has proved to be no easy task, is effectively use its 3-D format. With Robert Stromberg as production designer and Peter Deming as cinematographer, this film succeeds in making the Land of Oz look completely magical and strange. Which it very much needs to do to compensate for acting and writing that veer toward the ordinary more than they should.
As written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, this "Oz" begins, like the Garland classic, in Kansas in black and white. The year this time is 1905 and the setting is the rundown Baum Bros. Circus (a nod to L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original Oz novels). In dusty tents, a magician named Oscar Diggs (Franco) holds forth amid the alter egos of characters he will later meet in Oz.
Though he bills himself as "Oz the Great and Powerful," Oscar Diggs is neither. Franco's portrayal calls to mind the actor's self-satisfied turn as host of the Academy Awards, giving the magician a callow, pleased-with-himself aura (he is accurately described later in the film as "selfish, slightly egotistical and a fibber"). While having Franco start out this way is intentional, the actor is frankly too adept at being irritating, so much so that his presence makes it harder to enjoy the rest of the movie.
A practiced seducer of women, Oscar has no use for the friendship of his assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and doesn't know what to say when a young teenager in a wheelchair (Joey King) asks during his magic show if he can make her walk again. When old flame Annie (Williams) tells him she's going to be married to someone else, he mocks her notions of probity. He doesn't want to be a good man, he says, but a great one — a combination of "Harry Houdini and Thomas Edison all rolled into one." He doesn't know he's about to get his chance.
As in the 1939 original, a tornado seems the only mode of transport from Kansas to the magical kingdom, as Oscar is carried in by a hot air balloon. And magical this land certainly is, with unusual flowers opening in glorious profusion and otherworldly pink butterflies filling the air. It is quite a 3-D sight, and it needs to be to keep us involved while the story finds its legs.
Oscar's first order of business is rescuing Finley, a flying talking monkey in a bellhop's uniform and cap (Braff again) who becomes the newcomer's sidekick and confidant, a role news reports suggest was beefed up to help Franco's low likability quotient.
Next we encounter naive witch Theodora (Kunis), who is convinced that the magician is the prophesied wizard with great powers who has been expected to show up and free the land from the tyranny of the wicked witch.
The man himself is not so sure, but he's interested in the treasure that goes with the job. After meeting the more worldly Evanora (Weisz) and then the glowing blond Glinda (Williams again), Oscar is convinced he has to fake being a real wizard until the film reveals which of the trio is the wicked witch, a bogus dilemma that confuses rather than helps the plot.
This may sound straightforward on paper, but the film's pokey plot advances in fits and starts. There are moments of enchantment, as when Oscar comes across tiny, made-of-porcelain China Girl (King again). And there are moments of nastiness, like attacks by flying baboons with sharp fangs and dispositions to match, the kind of unnerving episodes even nominal family films now feel compelled to include.
As the story's conclusion looms and Oscar is allowed to be more likable, the whole project gets a new lease on life. The moral here is that we are capable of more than we know, so how can we not be won over — especially if munchkins are involved? But "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a rougher slog getting there than it needs to be.
'Oz the Great and Powerful'
Rating: PG for sequences of action and scary images and brief mild language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release