Does every pop-culture figure need an origin story? All you really need to know about the Wizard of Oz is encapsulated in his most famous moment in the 1939 movie of the same name, when he pleads with Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” as he’s revealed to be nothing more than a trickster working a fancy contraption. So Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, from director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, the original Spider-Man trilogy), at first seems like it would be a little redundant.
But Raimi manages to capture some of the gee-whiz excitement of old Hollywood epics, and even mimics the 1939 film’s structure by starting out with a black-and-white prologue, shot in the square Academy ratio and featuring two-bit stage magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), also known as Oz, getting caught in a tornado in Kansas. When the twister transports him to the magical land of Oz, the frame widens and then fills with vibrant and exaggerated colors. The first 45 minutes or so of the movie are a clever, wonderfully crafted homage to classic cinema, with Raimi expertly integrating modern 3D with old-fashioned storytelling styles.
Once in Oz, Oscar encounters three witches of varying temperament (played by Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz), and, mistaken for the prophesied wizard who will save the kingdom, embarks on a quest to rid the land of evil—mostly for his own personal gain. Oscar’s journey from womanizing con man to benevolent savior is pretty boilerplate Disney material, and the story gets bogged down in familiar blockbuster plot mechanics in its second half. But Raimi is an expert at this sort of thing, and he fills the movie with entertaining, creative touches even when the plot ends up being sort of a drag.
As Oscar, Franco is the film’s weakest link, smirking insincerely through a role that requires a bit more debonair panache. Kunis, Williams and Weisz pick up the slack, though, and Raimi delivers a movie that may not add much of note to Oz mythology, but is still a lot of fun to watch.