It’s always risky to mess with classic films that have a loyal following. And 1939’s Oscar-winning “The Wizard of Oz,” starring Judy Garland, is beloved by generations.
So “Oz the Great and Powerful” has some big ruby slippers to fill.
On the plus side, this “Oz” emulates the original as a visual spectacle that starts out in a black-and-white Kansas and morphs into the colorful world of Oz with all its wonders.
Working against it are the limitations of being a prequel to the 1939 film, so the audience knows where this story is going. The script offers few unexpected twists and turns on a journey to mostly inevitable conclusions.
Tepid performances by James Franco as Oscar Diggs, or Oz, and Mila Kunis as Theodora/The Wicked Witch of the West (she’s no Margaret Hamilton) don’t help. The other witches – Rachel Weisz as Evanora and Michelle Williams as Glinda the good – are stronger, but they are limited by the quality of the script.
We meet Oz in Kansas, where he is a traveling circus magician and ne’er-do-well charlatan who charms women only to leave them as he moves to the next town.
Like Dorothy Gale, a tornado sweeps the Kansan into the land of Oz. There, he is mistaken for a real wizard and heralded as a savior who will mend the rift caused by the three witches and their power struggle.
Like the classic, our hero embarks on a journey along the yellow brick road, first to get to the Emerald City and then on a quest to kill the evil witch so he can be king. And, like Dorothy, he picks up an entourage along the way — including Finley the flying monkey (Zach Braff) and China Girl (Joey King), literally a porcelain china doll — who mirror people from Kansas. Finley and China Girl are the most entertaining characters in the movie.
Unlike Dorothy, Oz doesn’t particularly miss Kansas, where he was being chased out of town, and he sees this new land as a good place to continue his wayfaring, con artist approach to life. But this new land will test him.
Somehow, despite three battling witches, an army of evil flying baboons and a penultimate battle between the good people of Oz, led by their fake wizard, and the evil witch and her minions, the movie never really becomes all that compelling.
“Oz” is visually impressive. And it is a nice homage to the original, with a lot of little touches, such as an early scene where Oz’s true love, Annie (Williams in a dual role), tells him that John Gale has proposed, and we realize she is Dorothy’s mother.
But as epic adventures go, “Oz” never becomes great or powerful. More like Oz the acceptable and mild.