Dir: Sam Raimi. US. 2013. 130mins

Oz The Great And Powerful

Imagining the events that led up to The Wizard Of Oz, the fantasy-adventure Oz The Great And Powerful will undoubtedly stir the emotions of generations of filmgoers enchanted by the 1939 classic. But unfortunately, recreating that movie’s look and some of its iconic characters isn’t nearly the same as capturing its spirit. Director Sam Raimi (of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films) tries to mix dark and light tones while bolstering the action and effects, but the resulting film is a glossy jumble that is only occasionally rousing but rarely magical.

Seductive and dangerous, Weisz is perhaps the most successful representation of the scary-but-playful spirit Raimi tries to bring to the film.

This Disney release arrives March 8 in the US, where it will do battle with another fantasy-adventure film, Jack The Giant Slayer, but otherwise will probably be a top family choice for several weeks. IMAX and 3D screenings will boost grosses, as will a cast that includes James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams. But probably the biggest draw is the film’s connection to The Wizard Of Oz, not to mention that its ad campaign has heavily promoted Oz The Great And Powerful’s lavish costumes, production design and effects, drawing comparisons to another 3D fantasy, Alice In Wonderland, which brought in over $1bn globally.

Oz The Great And Powerful begins in Kansas in 1905 as self-absorbed, womanizing traveling magician Oz (Franco) delivers another of his meagre shows to mildly interested locals. Convinced he’s meant for loftier success, he’s unhappy to learn that beautiful Annie (Williams) — for whom he has genuine feelings — has come to tell him that another man has proposed to her, although she wishes that Oz would sweep her away instead.

But before Oz can get too consumed with this romantic quandary, he’s whisked away in a tornado, ending up in the enchanted world of Oz, which, to his surprise, shares his name. Once there, he encounters a lovely young witch named Theodora (Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Weisz), who believe he is the fulfilment of a prophecy that stated that a wizard would arrive to become king, killing the mysterious Wicked Witch in the process. Oz decides to go along with the townspeople’s belief that he is a mighty wizard when he sees the amount of gold he’ll enjoy as king, but soon he meets the saintly witch Glinda (Williams again), who quickly sees through his ruse and recognises him for the charlatan he is.

Drawing inspiration from novelist L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Oz The Great And Powerful embellishes Oz the man’s back story, showing how he went from being a selfish huckster to becoming the wise, noble leader of a magical land. At the same time, this film is also an origin story about how the Wicked Witch came into being, a revelation presumably meant to be a surprise for audiences, although some information about the actress playing her has started leaking out.

Prequels and franchise reboots are very much in fashion lately, but Oz The Great And Powerful demonstrates that strategy’s downside if the material isn’t very compelling or clashes tonally with the movies that came before. Raimi’s film, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, suffers from an overreliance on visual spectacle that becomes less spectacular the more it dominates the storytelling. Bringing us back to several of the locales in The Wizard Of Oz — the Emerald City, the Dark Forest, the dangerous poppy field — this new film will trigger waves of nostalgia, but that stirring can’t overcome a script that doesn’t offer much in the way of captivating characters.

As Oz, Franco never quite finds the right take on this smooth-talking, fast-thinking con man who finally grows a conscience. At the beginning of the film he’s not enough of a lovable scoundrel, and at the end of the film he’s not heartfelt enough to suggest someone who has seen the error of his ways. Granted, a screenplay with too many clunky, cutesy one-liners doesn’t help, but Franco seems overwhelmed by the largely digital environment in which he’s been placed. (He also spends a lot of time speaking to CG characters, whether it be a china doll, voiced by Joey King, or a flying monkey, voiced by Zach Braff. Not much of a rapport develops between Oz and these side characters.)

While The Wizard Of Oz is remembered as a sweet fairy tale, it’s also somewhat dark thanks to the Wicked Witch’s cackling villainy. Raimi ups the ante, giving us snarling flying monkeys and a massive battle between the forces of good and evil for control of the kingdom. In his early career, Raimi quite capably melded humour and horror in the Evil Dead films, although those movies were intended for adults. Oz The Great And Powerful focuses on the family audience, and Raimi’s grip isn’t as sure, the film lurching between sticky-sweet sentiment, dopey humour, and mildly intense action sequences. It’s a daring concoction, but it fails to congeal.

Of the cast, Williams and Weisz are most convincing playing the two extremes of witches. Williams projects a wonderfully unfiltered sweetness, consciously recalling the bubbly Billie Burke who played Glinda in the original film. By comparison, Weisz uses her dark eyes and coy smile to good effect as Evanora, whose claims to be concerned about the future of the kingdom seem more dubious by the moment. Seductive and dangerous, Weisz is perhaps the most successful representation of the scary-but-playful spirit Raimi tries to bring to the film.

As with The Wizard Of Oz, Oz The Great And Powerful starts off in black-and-white, turning to colour (and a pleasingly wide-screen presentation) once Oz arrives in the enchanted land. The design of this world has unquestionably been done with care, but despite the sharp 3D lensing by Peter Deming, the utilisation of so many artificial, digital landscapes give the movie a phoniness that undercuts the story’s emotional underpinnings. Taking on a beloved piece of Hollywood history was always going to be a challenge, but Oz The Great And Powerful falters not for lack of ambition but because of an inability to tell a tale half as emotional, joyful or resonant as the original.

Production companies: Roth Films, Curtis-Donen Productions

Domestic distribution: Walt Disney, movies.disney.com

Producer: Joe Roth

Executive producers: Grant Curtis, Palak Patel, Josh Donen, Philip Steuer

Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, screen story by Mitchell Kapner, based on the works of L. Frank Baum

Cinematography: Peter Deming

Editor: Bob Murawski

Production designer: Robert Stromberg           

Music: Danny Elfman

Website: disney.com/thewizard

Main Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox