I had high hopes for Sam Raimi's prequel to the beloved 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. After the letdown that was Raimi's last outing with a block buster-type budget with Spider-Man 3 in 2007, I was hoping this update on the fabled land of Oz before Judy Garland followed the yellow brick road would be a return to form for the mufti-talented genre director. What the audience got was a slightly-better version of Tim Burton's fiasco Alice in Wonderland, minus the shitty 3D conversion rush job. That's not to say Oz the Great and Powerful was a carbon copy of that poorly-executed madhouse. The tile sequence and the opening 10 minutes, shot completely in black and white, is a terrific use of the 3D format and pays a nice tribute to how the '39 film opened, before the filmmakers break new ground and shoot the majority of the film in Technicolor. On a technical level, Raimi delivers a visual knockout: the size, scope, colors, look and feel of the film is tailor made to get the audience lost in the world of Oz. Raimi's use of 3D is also some of the best use of the format i've seen. And the last 30 minutes, where James Franco's Oscar Diggs uses his trade as an illusionist to take back the Emerald City from a manipulative wicked witch, is the closest the movie gets to capturing the fun and the wonder of the original movie. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie never fully lives up to the original, and that can be blamed on Raimi making the same fatal mistake Burton made in 2010 with his retelling of Alice in Wonderland: strong visuals and first-rate production value can't hide an underdeveloped story or strong characters. James Franco as the Man Behind the Curtain, the great and powerful Oz, tries to be a likeable scoundrel as he attempts to find it in himself to be a great man, but he comes off as a straight-up jerk, and it became difficult for me to buy his transformation at film's end because how how Franco portrays him. The rest of the cast - Rachel Weitz as Evanora; Mila Kunis as Theodora; Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch; Zack Braff as Frank the flying monkey - fail to leave an impression the audience the same way the original cast did, and there's no real stamp the actors leave on these beloved characters and their world. Oz the Great and Powerful is a honest and admirable re-telling of a land somewhere over the rainbow, but beyond the rainbow, it reminds you that you should probably stick with the classic.
** stars out of ****