Let's start with the obvious: Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" does not even begin to compare with the timeless majesty of its 1939 predecessor, Victor Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz," which still ranks as one of the great big-screen fantasies.
The good news is that Mr. Raimi's movie doesn't really try — and, indeed, often seems charmingly aware of its own relative shortcomings.
Technically speaking, Mr. Raimi's film is not related to Fleming's "The Wizard of Oz" at all: Instead, Mr. Raimi's movie is based on public domain material from the works of children's author L. Frank Baum.
Still, even if "Oz the Great and Powerful" is not legally a prequel, it serves much the same function, telling the story of how Oz (James Franco), a young magician and con-man from Kansas, ends up in a bright and mystical faraway world in need of saving. On his way, he meets a trio of witches (played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams), a flustered winged monkey (Zach Braff) and a tiny girl made out of china (Joey King). It's an origin story — a tale about how the Wizard of Oz became the Wizard of Oz.
Mr. Franco is an enjoyable, if understated, presence as Oz, who he plays as a sort of disaffected stoner. But it's Mr. Raimi who's the real star. Longtime fans of the director, who cut his teeth making low-budget splatter-horror films before vaulting into the big leagues as the director of the first "Spider-Man" trilogy, will enjoy spotting this far tamer movie's many Raimi-isms: the spastic zooms and zany angles, the slithering POV shots and the shrieking monster-movie close-ups. There's even the requisite (quite funny) cameo by frequent Raimi-collaborator Bruce Campbell as a huffy Emerald City guard.
Mr. Raimi is a showman, and his bag of tics and tricks are on full display here. But the director's greatest strength is in the way he's adapted his unique tonal sensibility to the big-budget, family-friendly setting. He still has a gift for gross-out gags and lively chaos, but he also brings a sincere — almost gentle — touch to the story. His sense of humor, meanwhile, remains as delightfully goofy as ever, and he retains his fondness for almost-sympathetic villains.
Most of all, there's an inherent modesty to his approach, despite the movie's reported $350 million marketing and production price tag. Mr. Raimi seems to understand that his film will never live up to the first big-screen "Wizard of Oz."
And he slyly builds that idea into the story. "So you're not the wizard I was expecting," one of Oz's fellow travelers says at one point. "So you don't have the powers I hoped. But you're here."
The sentiment applies to the movie as well. "Oz the Great and Powerful" does not live up to the expectations set by its predecessor, and lacks that film's enduring magic. But it's here. And for Oz fans looking for a modest weekend diversion, it'll do.
TITLE: “Oz the Great and Powerful”
CREDITS: Directed by Sam Raimi, screenplay by Mitchell Kapner and David-Lindsay-Abaire
RATING: PG for fantasy violence
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS