For the News-Democrat
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
A glossy and grand prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" 74 years after the cherished classic debuted, "Oz the Great and Powerful" explains how a two-bit magician wound up as the savior of the munchkins, tinkers and farmers in the land of Oz. He battles two wicked witch sisters, transforms himself into a better man, and harnesses his gifts for the greater good in an over-the-top visual extravaganza.
Do we really want to see what's behind the curtain?
Bigger doesn't mean better if it's a hollow exercise with an inflated sense of self-importance and an imbalanced emphasis on razzle-dazzle.
When a computer-generated monkey sidekick, Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, is the standout performance, what's wrong with this picture? The leads are handsome, yes, but stilted. Scenes are stretched out for optimum effect, as the camera lingers on their close-ups, but the dialogue is sadly lackluster.
James Franco isn't a comfortable fit as the greedy selfish lying con man Oscar Diggs who becomes the wonderful Wizard of Oz. While he nails the shady aspect, the transition to good guy is rocky. The three witches are merely satisfactory window-dressing, with Michelle Williams faring the best as Glinda. Mila Kunis is miscast as Theodora, and Rachel Weisz is wasted as Evanora -- all their flailing about, with electro-magnetic charges and fireballs, makes the fancy effects stand out more than their mean-girl showdowns. One Margaret Hamilton cackle sent shivers down a young kid's spine in "The Wizard of Oz." That genuine emotion is missing in favor of pretty women in glamorous gowns one-upping each other in whiz-bang witchy effects.
The 3-D visual effects are stunning, as is the cinematography, starting out in black-and-white and transforming into color, showcasing an opulent Oz countryside and gleaming art-deco Emerald City. They do, however, supercede the story and performances. The beginning credit sequence is a marvel, and the homages to the beloved original are nice touches.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK
Sluggish and too long, "Oz the Great and Powerful" doesn't ever figure out a consistent tone. It never hits the magical sweet spot of the original, or comes close to being as clever as the musical 'Wicked," which put a unique spin on Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba the Wicked Witch, captivating big audiences for a decade. We need to feel something for the characters --as in all the most popular fantasies throughout American cinema..
While Finley the monkey is a hoot, there's no character that can compare to the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion or Scarecrow, and the china doll is not a substitute for Dorothy.
You expect more from award-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and co-screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, and Sam Raimi ("Evil Dead," "Spider-Man").
Everything is kicked up a notch -- oh no, mere flying monkeys won't do -- the witches' evil minions are now flying baboons. And there's hundreds, maybe thousands, ominously flying out of the castle.
In this ode to an epic cinema experience, shouldn't we get more heart, more soul, more connection instead of merely multiplying everything visual? Minor characters draw us in far more than the stars.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" is all about the spectacle -- for some, that's enough.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff
Rated: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language