Sputtering on the Yellow Brick Road more fruitfully explored by L. Frank Baum in books, The Wizard of Oz on film, and The Wiz and Wicked onstage is Oz The Great and Powerful. Director Sam Raimi and co-writers Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (the Pulitzer-winning play Rabbit Hole, plus Broadway’s Shrek the Musical and the recent animated fantasy Rise of the Guardians) had an impossible task before them: Make an Oz movie for Disney that could only allude to beloved copyrighted elements held by others. So we have a brick road that’s more sallow than yellow, a wicked witch who’s green but not that precise green, flying baboons rather than flying monkeys, and so on. It’s a facsimile that, when we get to Oz, feels like one, inorganic, CGI-thick, neither its own thing or what we so vividly recall.
The opening act, however, has magic, and the promise of more. Filmed in black-and-white (not the Wizard of Oz sepia) we begin in Kansas, pre-Dorothy. Charlatan magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), perpetually fleecing customers and pitching woo at the ladies, ignores his lackey Frank (Zach Braff) and anyone who interferes with his get-rich-quick schemes. When the one woman who has captured a bit of his heart sensibly gives him the brush for another, more grounded man, a bad day at the circus only gets worse, as an angry mob hoping for real miracles forms. Fleeing via his hot air balloon, Diggs is snared in a fearsome tornado, and awakens in Oz, which is done up in bright, Avatar-meets-Life of Pi colors, with people and non-people a little familiar to us from his earlier misadventure.
At this point the film’s aspect ratio switches from Academy/”TV ratio” to widescreen, a delightful pulling back of the curtain as it were. And one I always enjoy; The Horse Whisperer and Galaxy Quest did it, too, and there must be other, more recent examples. This one really functions, however, as sleight of hand, and can make you gasp even if you’re expecting it, as you are now (it’s not really a spoiler). Technically, the movie, photographed by Peter Deming and scored by a circusy Danny Elfman, has us in our grasp. As a bonus, the 3D (such a letdown in last week’s fantasy) is eye-catching, depth-defying, fun. The director of The Evil Dead isn’t afraid to throw things, lots of things, at us, and crank up the fully directional sound. (His usual good luck charm, Bruce Campbell, turns up, too.)
But Raimi wasn’t hired for that. The director of the Spider-Man trilogy is here to sail a gigantically expensive vessel into international waters, where Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland voyaged three years ago and emerged as the 13th top-grossing film of all time. It’s in part because of that big hit we’re swamped in storybook movies these days, and if Oz The Great and Powerful is an easier sit than its mostly awful predecessors it’s still a draining experience once we’re among the kind-of witches and the sort-of Munchkins. Accompanied by Finley, a single, bellhop-costumed flying monkey voiced by Braff, Diggs is swept into palace intrigue cooked up by the domineering Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and the more innocent, if easily enraged, Theodora (Mila Kunis), who await the arrival of the all-powerful Wizard as sorcery blights the land. He also meets Glinda, the good witch, who, thanks to an appealing performance by Michelle Williams, is the movie’s most successful carryover and source of human-ish warmth.
Given their own powers I’m not sure why the witches, good and bad, need to be in the thrall of a total stranger, but this is not a vehicle for exploring patriarchal oppression. Other than one stunted number and a forgettable Mariah Carey track during the closing credits it’s not a family musical, either, not hardly. It’s an Oz-themed thrill ride, with ideas kept to a minimum, lest audiences in Russia, Korea, France, China (and down the street, too) get impatient or bored. Someone at Disney must recall the failure of 1985’s troubling, fascinating Return to Oz, so it hews to a template, which means digital characters whose roles can be augmented if the test scores are good (besides Finley, who got more to do in post, Diggs travels with a sassy china doll), throwaway creatures that growl and snap at us, hazy plotting, and functional, easily translatable dialogue devised by the two incompatible-seeming writers (did they ever meet?). Of course it must end with a titanic battle between good and evil, the second I’ve seen this month and not the last we’ll see this year, I reckon. There must be more that could be done with such venerable material, even in lawyer-vetted form, but this is what the market demands, and so Raimi has given us an Oz for 2013, if not the ages. Neither great nor powerful, Oz is merely Ok.