"Oz the Great and Powerful" should have been called "Oz the Good and Passable." The new film from director Sam Raimi has flashes of brilliance but overall the latest trip down the Yellow Brick Road has a few too many bumps in the road to make this a magical journey.
The latest film production inspired by the writings of L. Frank Baum explains how Oz (James Franco) goes from being a two-bit sideshow magician in Kansas to ruling the land of Munchkins, Quadlings and Flying Monkeys. In true Dorothy fashion, Oz is taken via tornado to the weird and wonderful land.
He lands in the middle of a battle between three witches -- Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) -- for control of the land. It will take some good old fashioned showmanship if Oz is going to make sure good triumphs over evil.
Visually, the film is stunning, from the black-and-white footage -- a nod to the 1939 musical "The Wizard of Oz" -- to the brilliant colors of the Emerald City. The color is bright enough that even the usual dulling effect that comes with wearing the 3-D glasses doesn't hurt the hues.
Where Raimi seems uncertain is with the special effects. Some are brilliant, as in the case of the film's breakout character, the China Girl (voiced beautifully by Joey King), a porcelain person who joins Oz on his quest to save the kingdom. Then there's Oz's other sidekick, the Flying Monkey Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), who just looks creepy.
The Flying Monkeys are supposed to be fearsome, and the majority -- which look more like Flying Baboons -- are so terrifying that the film is a little too intense for very young viewers. Finley's supposed to be lovable, but the computer animators never achieved that look.
There also are some clunky special effects -- including some shots of characters running that are painfully bad -- that keep taking away from the magical moments.
Weisz was a great casting as the master manipulator, while Williams brings a sweetness to Glinda that rivals the classic performance by Billie Burke. But Kunis never finds the right rhythms to play Theodora. There's one particularly embarrassing scene where the character is trying to be seductive but ends up looking like a reject from a bad shampoo commercial.
The script by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire is at times a loving tribute to Baum and the 1939 film, while at other times, it's as if this was supposed to be a parody of the beloved franchise. Case in point: A scene where the Munchkins begin to break into a song that's played for laughs.
The biggest problem with "Oz the Great and Powerful" is Franco. Oz needs to be played as both a cad and a charmer, and Franco never fully plays either. He just doesn't have the larger-than-life charisma to make Oz the great and powerful character he should be. Watching Franco is like going to see a stage production of "Wicked" and the stand-in's stand-in is playing the role of the Wizard for the night. No matter how good the production, there's just something missing.
"Oz the Great and Powerful," rated PG for scary images. Stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King. Directed by Sam Raimi. Running time: 1 hour, 7 minutes. Grade: B- Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.