Audiences seem to love a good origin story: What made Voldemort so heartless? Who really is Darth Vader? Why is Indiana Jones solely afraid of snakes? “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” directed by Sam Raimi (“Drag Me to Hell”) attempts to feed on our need to explain evil, cashing in on the ageless story of the wicked green witch and the elusive, great Oz. The twist is that we don’t yet know which witch will be bested by Dorothy’s house and which by her bucket of water. However, while this tale of betrayal and redemption has the potential to contribute to the original, these greater themes are lost among the bright colors and fresh faces that fill Raimi’s “Oz.”
Oz the Great and Powerful
At Quality 16 and Rave
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
James Franco (“Spring Breakers”) stars as Oscar, known as Oz, a small-time Kansas conman posing as a charming circus magician. He’s swept up by a rogue tornado as he flees two of his womanized victims in a stolen hot-air balloon, which plops him down into a fantastical land, where he encounters (and quickly seduces) innocent witch Theodora (Mila Kunis, “Ted”). She believes he is the great wizard of Oz lore, sent to deliver the land from the clutches of a mysterious, evil witch. But the selfish hero decides not to fill her in on his unimpressive true self.
Theodora leads her new love to the gleaming Emerald City, where her fellow witch sister Evanora (played with wicked aplomb by Rachel Weisz, “The Bourne Legacy”) mandates that Oz must travel to the dark forest in order to kill the evil witch before he can claim his throne and the enticing riches that come with it. There he finds Glinda (Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn,”) the kindest and most self-satisfied sister, who helps Oz raise an army of munchkins to conquer the witch.
Despite the high-wattage cast, the real star is the land of Oz itself and the visual effects that create it. It’s a fantastical escape, filled with life-like new creatures, massive neon flowers and beautiful flowing landscapes. The effects are stunning, but the plot often sacrificed; you want to tell the actors, “your green screen is showing.”
New characters are introduced on Oz’s familiar journey along the yellow brick road — Zach Braff (“Tar”) plays Oz’s semi-witty flying monkey sidekick, and feisty little China Girl (Joey King, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) is introduced, perhaps to replicate the perennially annoying Dorothy. But these new characters fall flat and bloat an already packed storyline. Raimi focuses too much on creating a world distinct from that of the original Oz but in doing so often forgoes the characters we have been invested in for nearly 75 years.
Raimi, who has worked with Franco on multiple occasions, tries to create an epic, touching tale of greed and heartbreak, but his fanfare overwhelms the talented actors. “Oz” is a film best viewed using half a brain — the part that fawns over the visuals, enjoys the twists the story takes to reach its inevitable end, but ignores the plot holes and disappointing predictability in its telling of Oz and his harem of witches. Because we already know that there is no place like Oz.