The prequel places the wizard in the merry old land, but we know where this journey is going

Magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) must use his magical arts and ingenuity to become the great wizard he is expected to be in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi.
Walt Disney Pictures
Magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) meets up with China Girl (voiced by Joey King) in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi.
Walt Disney Pictures

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams

Directed by: Sam Raimi

Stars: 2 1/2 out of 4

Rating: PG

Although everyone thinks of the 1939 classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” in regard to bringing the land of Oz book series by L. Frank Baum to motion pictures, there have been more than 20 Oz films, ranging from 1910’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” to the upcoming computer-animated “Dorothy of Oz.” Beyond the 1939 classic, some of the more memorable efforts include:

“Journey Back to Oz” (1974): This low-budget animated sequel featured a big-name voice cast including Liza Minnelli (Judy Garland’s daughter), Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle and Ethel Merman.

“Return to Oz” (1985): Fairuza Balk starred as Dorothy, who finds herself back in Oz six months after her first visit. The movie was met by skepticism at the time because it appeared to be an attempt at a sequel to the 1939 film, but it has become a cult classic.

“Tin Man” (2007):This ambitious six-hour Syfy channel miniseries starring Zooey Deschanel, Neal McDonough and Alan Cumming offers an updated twist on the original.

“The Muppets Wizard of Oz” (2005): As they have with other classics like “Treasure Island,” the Muppets offer their retelling.

“The Wiz” (1978): Diana Ross and Michael Jackson star in the

film version of the successful Broadway show, billed as a black version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“The Wonderful Land of Oz” (1969): Has the distinction of being labeled the worst Oz film ever made.

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.

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