The "sound-alike" has long been a practice of those looking to borrow the cachet of a piece of music by producing a knock-off rather than paying royalties for the real deal. Well, Disney has a shiny new Oz movie for you (and the whole family) that's a "look-alike" of Warner property The Wizard of Oz, but shhh, Disney doesn't want to get sued.
Oz the Great and Powerful comes billed as based on the public-domain works of L. Frank Baum, therefore omitting ruby slippers and tweaking just-so the designs created for the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. But the effect is a lot like the movie as well-made Halloween costume: as it plays dress-up, you immediately recognize what it "is." The effect is underlined by director Sam Raimi staging and shooting the opening scenes, set in 1905 Kansas, in the visual style of the 1939 movie: black and white "Academy" ratio that expands to vintage Technicolor-hued color widescreen once the movie arrives in the magical land of Oz.
This prequel concerns the story of how the Wizard installed himself as "the man behind the curtain" in the Emerald City. James Franco plays roguish carnival magician Oscar Diggs (a.ka. "Oz"), whose hot-air balloon gets whipped by a tornado into the land of Oz. There he meets a fetching witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis), who informs him that he must be the wizard foretold in prophecy to inherit the Emerald City throne.
Theodora takes Oz to meet her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who regards him with suspicion but sends him on a mission to kill a witch and thereby earn his fated position of power and great fortune. That witch turns out to be Glinda (Michelle Williams). In story terms, this sort of connect-the-dots prequel is basically a dead end, deterministically warned not to stray from its yellow-brick road and doomed to a foregone conclusion.
The script by Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) gets to sort out the aforementioned witch politics (the main concern: which witch is the Wicked Witch...of the West?), but mostly settles for revisiting every possible trope of the original story rather than trying to break narrative or thematic ground: there's no idea here that wasn't expressed more efficiently in the 1939 film, rendering this 2013 film redundant.
Oz the Great and Powerful gets saved from the junk heap by Franco and especially by director Sam Raimi, who happily treats the enterprise as a sandbox. Like Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese before him, Raimi finds his first foray into 3D creatively envigorating, at least in visual terms. His comical in-your-face style is entirely suited to 3D, and the premium at the box office is worth it to see what this cinematic craftsman does with it.
Meanwhile, Franco's smiley mischief keeps the picture buoyant (is that an extra glint in the local boy's eye when he name-checks Thomas Alva Edison as "the wizard of Menlo Park"?), as do two appealingly precocious CGI characters with whom he convincingly acts: China Girl (voiced by Joey King and based on Baum's China Princess) and flying monkey Finley (Zach Braff). The leading ladies do their best, but their characters are both overly familiar and thinly, unconvincingly motivated.
A special-effects reel does not a movie make. Okay, it didn't in 1939, but it sorta does now, sadly. At least Raimi's PG pastiche is highly skilled: his picture is a feast for the eyes of tasteful pictorial imagination, making spectacular use of state-of-the-art visual and aural effects. It's a bit difficult to stick with the story, especially in the draggy final leg, but when Raimi keeps the tone light, this Oz can make fun.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]