It’s worth reflecting, for a moment, on what makes 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” not just a great movie but an iconic experience and pop touchstone. It got mixed reviews in 1939, but my generation discovered the film on TV after family gatherings, when the grown-ups were sleeping off the tryptophan, and it has since rolled out across VHS and DVD as a childhood rite of passage. There are those catchy songs, of course, and a villainess that perches on the edge of nightmare. The winged monkeys go over that edge — they’re Hieronymus Bosch for kiddies. But it’s Dorothy who makes “Wizard” stick, or, rather, the profound emotional yearning for a home beyond the rainbow conveyed by the young Judy Garland, who herself had lost her bearings in the Oz of MGM. “The Wizard of Oz” works because we can feel it.
Which is precisely what’s missing from “Oz the Great and Powerful”: that sense of emotional journey. The new film comes at us with all the 21st-century bells and whistles — computer-generated effects, 3-D visuals — and the absurdly talented Sam Raimi (the “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” trilogies) behind the camera. An unofficial prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” it has a sly but gracious reverence for the fantasy world created by L. Frank Baum, and it gets as close to the 1939 movie as lawyers for current copyright holder Warner Bros. will allow. Even the colors glow with the hyperreal tones of classic three-strip Technicolor.
But, alas, James Franco has been cast in the lead role of Oscar Diggs, the tent-show magician from Kansas who becomes — not at all convincingly until the very end — the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Franco is, frankly, too callow, too feckless, too much the dude for this role. Johnny Depp was a rumored lead at one point, but that would have brought the movie even closer than it already is to Tim Burton’s 2010 “Alice in Wonderland,” an eye-popping CGI bore. Robert Downey Jr. was another candidate, and that might have been better — he might have anchored the role in both wit and hurt.
But Franco’s Oz is required to be a jerk for most of the film’s 130 minutes, and it wears you out. There are still some wonderful things in “Oz the Great and Powerful,” and one of them is the opening section, set in 1905 Kansas — a classic, black-and-white, 4:3-aspect-ratio Kansas much like the beginning of the 1939 movie. Once the tornado whisks the hero by balloon to Oz, the colors bleed in and the screen magically widens, but the landscapes have the craggy, familiar “awesomeness” of every other computer-generated fantasy film these days. We’ve been here before, and too recently.
Another problem: Mila Kunis is all wrong as Theodora, initially the most naive of the three witches of Oz. The actress is terrific in modern-dress roles but there’s nothing mythic or otherworldly about her, a fact that becomes plain as soon as Rachel Weisz turns up as her scheming sister Evanora. Imperious, larger-than-life — now this is a witch. (For those keeping score, the new movie has nothing to do with the “Wicked” franchise of book and stage.)
The movie’s third witch, the super-nice one, is named Glinda (but you knew that already) and is played by Michelle Williams with a dreamy sweetness that doesn’t convey the depths of which this actress is capable. The story line’s a little confusing — Oscar is welcomed as the prophesied Wizard who will rescue the kingdom from evil but first he has to figure out which witch is which, and his many interactions with Glinda, Theodora, Evanora et al., are surprisingly charmless and flat. Raimi has trouble finding the right rhythm or the proper energy, and he isn’t helped by a script by Mitchell Kapner and the gifted playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) that hovers around the “Shrek 2” level of invention.
There are a few moments, though, when you see what might have been — how “Oz the Great and Powerful” could have resonated with the storybook strangeness of “The Wizard of Oz.” The scene in which the hero meets China Girl, a living porcelain doll voiced by actress Joey King, is tender and sad and altogether marvelous; the movie subsequently hops to life whenever she’s onscreen. Oscar gets a comic sidekick in Finley, an amusingly servile winged monkey in a bellhop uniform, and Zach Braff, briefly seen in the Kansas opening, gives the character’s lines welcome topspin.
Elsewhere, you sense Raimi’s own wings have been clipped. The Munchkins look like what they are — extras at a costume party. Evadora’s henchmen are no monkeys this time out but vicious flying baboons, fearsome creatures we barely get a look at, so intent is Disney on keeping the film safely in PG territory. The director doubtless appreciates how close the 1939 film gets to the dark, and he’s a good person to take us there, but the corporate hands that have fashioned “Oz the Great and Powerful” are too nervous to let him.
So the movie toggles between inspiration and calculation, never finding its groove. The “Oz” stories are fantasies but homespun and uniquely American; they connect with us through Baum’s cracker-barrel imagination or Judy Garland’s boundless ache. There’s little to bond with in this one, certainly not its grinning lightweight of a lead actor. Even the Wicked Witch of the West, when she’s finally revealed in all her green-skinned glory, has the smooth computerized features of a video game villain.
Very late in the going, Franco’s cowardly Oscar does become the great and powerful Oz, in a rip-roaring climax that’s an ingenious fusion of Baum, steampunk, Thomas Alva Edison, and early movie technology. At long last, the movie puts on a show, both in the traveling-circus sense and in terms of our modern multiplex expectations. Raimi gets to have a little fun, and so do we. But it’s at that point you realize the people who’ve made “Oz the Great and Powerful” are more interested in building a new machine than in taking us over the rainbow and bringing us back home. Pay attention to those men behind the curtain.