A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 of 4 stars.
With his enchanting adventure “Oz the Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi eventually manages to blaze his own trail down the Yellow Brick Road while still respecting one of the most adored movies in cinema history.
The “Spider-Man” helmer’s “Wizard of Oz” origin story stars Oscar nominee James Franco (“127 Hours”) as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a charming, skirt-chasing illusionist for the two-bit Baum Family Circus, the first of many amusing and subtle references to L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books and the beloved 1939 film.
His former sweetheart Annie (Oscar nominee Michelle Williams) insists Oz has a good heart, but his aggrieved assistant Frank (Zach Braff) and the strongman he’s cuckolded (Tim Holmes) would be unlikely to agree. Besides, Oz has no interest in becoming just another good Kansas farmer like his father or Annie’s new fiancé; he wants to be great — and preferably rich and powerful to boot.
While fleeing the strongman’s fury in a hot-air balloon, Oz gets swept up, up and away in a fearsome tornado. and barely survives the frightening swirl of debris followed by the rough tumble down a series of towering waterfalls. As the film slowly morphs from black and white to vivid color, the exotically shaped mountains, the enormous musical flowers and the sharp-toothed fairies indicate he isn’t in Kansas anymore.
The first person the flimflamming magician encounters in this strange new land is the naïve and fetching witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), who desperately wants to be good. She believes Oz has come to fulfill local prophecy about a great wizard bearing the name of the land who would descend from the sky, free the people from the tyranny of the wicked witch and become the new king.
Not one to let the truth get in the way of his great and powerful aspirations, Oz lets Theodora escort him to the Emerald City, where he meets her suspicious older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz), the royal adviser. While Theodora quickly trusts and falls in love with Oz, Evanora suspects he is a fraud and rapidly dispatches him to overthrow the bad witch.
En route, Oz manages to rescues a wisecracking flying monkey named Finley (voiced by Braff) and a tougher-than-she-looks China Doll (voice of Joey King, who appears in Kansas as a wheelchair-bound girl who wants the magician to make her walk), and they become his companions on his mission. The quest gets much more complicated when they realize that the witch they’ve been dispatched to defeat, Glinda (Williams again), is actually the good one, while Evanora is the conniving spell-caster who killed Glinda’s father, the previous king.
Glinda may travel by bubble and hang out with a bunch of mild-mannered farmers, tinkers and Munchkins — in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Oz interrupts the diminutive population’s big song-and-dance number — but she’s no dumb blonde. Glinda knows Oz is a selfish con-man, but she also thinks he might just have what it takes to rally the people to defeat Evanora and her horrible army of winged baboons, which are much scarier than the flying monkeys of old, particularly in well-rendered 3-D, and sure to terrorize young children.
Overthrowing the true wicked witch becomes even more daunting when Evanora manipulates her temperamental sister into becoming a green-faced crone, which Kunis turns into a worthy predecessor to Margaret Hamilton’s scenery-chewing antagonist.
The mythology gets a bit murky, and the decision to have Williams, King and Braff play roles in both Kansas and Oz feels arbitrary. But Raimi — who starts a bit shaky but manages to work in some clever nods to his previous work, including a fun Bruce Campbell cameo — grants “Oz the Great and Powerful” enough magic to carry the day, and even better, prompt families and film fans to reunite with Dorothy and the original “Wizard of Oz.”