Three years after Disney scored a $1-billion global hit with "Alice in Wonderland," the studio is back with another 21st century take on a beloved fantasy tale: "Oz the Great and Powerful," a sort-of prequel to the 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz." The film stars James Franco as a small-time Kansas magician who ends up in an enchanted land, where he crosses paths with three witches played by Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz.
Though "Oz" appears poised to cash in at the box office, critics' reviews have been mixed, with many saying it lacks the magic of the original "Wizard of Oz" film.
Times film critic Kenneth Turan calls the new "Oz" film "a partially effective jumble whose elements clash rather than cohere," adding that "this solid but not spectacular effort stubbornly refuses to catch fire until it's almost too late." In the title role, Franco "is frankly too adept at being irritating, so much so that his presence makes it harder to enjoy the rest of the movie," and moreover, "the film's pokey plot advances in fits and starts."
On the plus side, he says, the film "succeeds in making the Land of Oz look completely magical and strange," and it does finally pick up at the end, when "the whole project gets a new lease on life."
For the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, "Oz" raises the question, "Can the major studios still make magic?" Judging by the "dispiriting, infuriating jumble of big money, small ideas and ugly visuals, the answer seems to be no." She adds, "The bigger bummer, though, is that the studio that has enchanted generations with Tinker Bell and at least a few plucky princesses has backed a movie that has such backward ideas about female characters that it makes the 1939 'Wizard of Oz' look like a suffragist classic." (Dargis sums up the new plot as a "prequel about a two-bit magician and Lothario with female troubles.")
USA Today's Claudia Puig offers a more measured review, writing that "Oz" "may not be great, exactly, but it is powerfully entertaining." She further says the new film is "respectful" to the 1939 version, and that "in creating additional mythology, director Sam Raimi has fashioned a viable escapist fantasy in its own right." Among the cast, Weisz "is the standout among the witches" and "digs in to her malevolent part with gusto."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has plenty of good things to say. He writes, "'Oz the Great and Powerful' has one flaw that keeps it from lifting off and soaring: It's 130 minutes long, and that's just too much for a fairy tale. … Everything else deserves praise." That includes "psychologically astute" costume design by Gary Jones and "the inevitable emotional chemistry" between Franco and Williams.
Most other reviews are less effusive. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips writes, "This is an uneven but agreeably managed blockbuster, better than the last one ('Jack the Giant Slayer') aiming for the same demographic." He later adds, "It's best to consider 'Oz the Great and Powerful' as the bombastic 21st-century prelude to the 20th-century 'Oz' we know."
In the L.A. Weekly, Scott Foundas says Franco is "fatally wrong for the part of Oz," and that Raimi "puts this movie dutifully through its Disneyfied paces, with precious little of the gently mocking humor that graced his 'Spider-Man films' (at least the first two) — or, for that matter, much humor at all."
Variety's Justin Chang writes, "Abundant indicators of commercial success and faultless production values aside, there’s a persistent sense of artifice here," and the movie "rings hollow in a way that prevents full surrender, leaving the viewer with an immediate desire to revisit the still-wondrous 1939 film."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy also compares "Oz" unfavorably with its predecessor, calling it "a sadly unimaginative prequel to the 1939 perennial" as well as a "long-in-the-works effects extravaganza [that] feels stillborn from its opening minutes and never springs to life, even with the arrival of the witches and the flying monkeys."
It was the original "Wizard of Oz," of course, in which Dorothy famously declared, "There's no place like home." Perhaps now she'd say you can't go home again.