It’s likely that director Sam Raimi sees some of himself in “Oz,” the circus-magician-turned-prophesized-savior in the Disney fantasy Oz The Great And Powerful: He’s a great conjuror of illusion, asked to marshal forces beyond comprehension, but he’s an outsider, too, a mischievous little rascal who’s used to doing things his own way. There’s some overlap between Raimi’s irreverent sensibility and the large-scale fractured fairytale his Hollywood betters seem to want, but there’s tension, too, and the persistent clank of an overly tinkered machine. Oz The Great And Powerful tries to be many things at once: A PG-rated Army Of Darkness with a modern jester whisked off to another world for a fantasy adventure; an immersive 3-D wonderment along the lines of Alice In Wonderland or Hugo; a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz that has Shrek’s winking attitude while paying faithful homage to the marvels and mythology of The Wizard Of Oz, perhaps the greatest of all Hollywood spectacles. It can’t possibly do it all.
Much of Oz The Great And Powerful’s fate is tied to James Franco’s performance as Oz, and the center barely holds, with Franco often looking as overwhelmed by the task as he was by his hosting job on Oscar night. After he narrowly escapes angry Kansans in a hot-air balloon, a tornado whisks him away to the magical land of Oz, where the helpful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) informs him of a prophecy that has a “wizard” named Oz arriving to claim the throne of the slain king. The only catch: In order to become king and enjoy the wealth and accommodations of the Emerald City, he must first defeat the wicked witch. The fact that he isn’t an actual wizard signals disaster, but he gets support from the good witch Glinda (Michelle Williams), a porcelain doll (voiced by Joey King), and the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who becomes his faithful assistant.
Oz The Great And Powerful gets off to a rough start, with a strained black-and-white prologue that invites an unflattering comparison to The Wizard Of Oz and an onslaught of digital effects that turn Oz into more of a gaming landscape than a real place. When most of the fun comes from Braff’s vaudevillian wisecracks as the monkey, it’s clear there isn’t nearly enough fun happening elsewhere. The film settles into a better groove once Oz stops fussing about being an imposter and joins Glinda in bringing the peace-loving people of Emerald City together for an elaborate, reasonably satisfying plan of attack. Throughout Oz The Great And Powerful, Raimi does what he can to squeeze in some clever references or Looney Tunes-style comic whizbangery, but the film gets away from him. On a production this gargantuan, he can’t be the only man behind the curtain.