The 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” is such a marvel of vision, casting and then-cutting edge technology that in the years since, relatively few filmmakers have attempted to follow director Victor Fleming down the yellow brick road, despite the wealth of source material provided by author L. Frank Baum.
Still, Hollywood can be relied upon to mess with a classic eventually, so several Oz-related projects are currently in development. Arriving first is Disney’s “Oz The Great and Powerful.”
It’s a mixed bag of tricks. Endearing in its reverence for Fleming’s movie and clever in its approach to conjuring some of its magic, Oz also reinforces some issues already present in the work of director Sam Raimi and star James Franco.
A wizardly origins story, it begins as the 1939 film does, in black and white and a vintage aspect ratio that fills barely half the screen. Franco’s Oscar Diggs, better known as Oz, is a morally shaky small-time prestidigitator who flees his traveling circus gig in a hot air balloon after the strong man finds out his girlfriend is one of Oz’s many conquests.
Quickly swallowed by a phenomenal twister, Oz lands in Oz, a world of saturated color and Cinemascope dimensions, and is met by the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She believes he’s the wizard told of in a prophecy, and that he’s come to slay the wicked witch who’s been making things not so merry there.
In the quest that ensues, the initially murky matter of which witch is wicked is answered (Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams are the other contenders), Oz picks up a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a china doll (voiced by Joey King) as traveling companions, and he begins to fulfill his dream of achieving historic greatness by becoming a better man in the present.
Visually, Raimi goes for extreme fantasy, developing a strange charm in the separation between eye-popping scenery and the living actors moving through it. The filmmaker also makes the most of 3D’s coming-at-ya effect, as well as its illusion of depth.
He stumbles, however, in the pacing. As with “Spider-Man 3,” Raimi indulges in too-long takes and cornball asides that pad a relatively scanty story out to more than two hours.
Casting represents another lost opportunity to form a stronger spell. Though Williams and Weisz are dead-on in their respective roles, Franco doesn’t believably embody his character’s arc. The actor may be a man of many diverse talents, but at this point, comfortably fitting into a traditional leading man role isn’t one of them.