Oz the Great and Powerful
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco,
Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams
Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
2 hrs. 10 mins.

Maybe I was deprived as a child, but I didn’t grow up reading the Oz books. My only exposure to the grand wizard was the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. So I freely confess, it’s my standard of comparison for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Admittedly, that’s a high bar, perhaps an impossible one to measure up to. Nonetheless, that’s what Oz is up against, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in this thinking.

So, does it measure up? No. It doesn’t have the same heart or charm, and toward its two-hour-plus finish it starts to drag down with predictability. Still, the good news is, I think your kids will enjoy it, and as a parent, sometimes that’s all that matters.

This Oz, based on the books by L. Frank Baum, takes us to the very beginning of Ozdom. Oz — actually Oscar Diggs (James Franco) — performs with a circus in Kansas at the turn of the 20th century. It turns out the man is neither great nor powerful, and not even particularly ethical, especially when it comes to seducing women.

After he flees in a hot-air balloon to escape the enraged husband of one of those women, he flies straight into a tornado and ends up being transported to the land of Oz, where he encounters three gorgeous witches — Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams).

Oz has a hard time figuring out who among the three witches is the good one. He also has a problem living up to the prophecy that has circulated among the people of Oz, the one about him being a great and powerful wizard who has come to free them from evil’s grip.

In the process of learning his way around the Emerald City, he tells a few fibs and must come to grips with his own lack of courage. Eventually, he wises up and puts together a plan to defeat the evil witches using his 20th century knowledge of new technologies — things like electricity, fireworks, even a movie camera.

If you were to quiz me on who would head up this kind of film, the last name I would associate with it is horror connoisseur and Batman guru Sam Raimi. Yet here he is at the helm. Good thing, because I think it’s his photogenic vision that probably saves this film.

What the film lacks in heart it makes up for in special effects, particularly if you watch it in 3-D. The writers also throw in enough humor to offset the film’s predictability — a bellhop flying monkey, a fragile but willful China doll, even Franco himself mugging his way out of trouble.

What hinders this film is not direction or photography or even acting, but lack of surprise. Once the riddle of the witches is finally solved, the rest feels, well, like I could just as easily have read the book.

And that’s the danger of bringing children’s literature to the big screen. At some point you have to wow your audience with something original. In this film, that originality seems to be weighted with special effects, and when you’ve got the old soulful Oz kicking at your heels, that’s not quite good enough to cut it.

Whether you choose to see this will probably depend on whether you’re a fan of the books, whether you have kids, and whether or not you enjoy fairy tales. As an adult, those are all big ifs, but if you’re attached to a kid and that kid’s universe, by all means go. It’s not Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Lion, but it’s still Oz. And as Oz himself learns, sometimes you have to believe in the power of magic, even if it doesn’t always live up to its billing.