Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
Just about anyone could have made "Oz the Great and Powerful," a mostly by-the-numbers prequel to Victor Fleming's classic 1939 adaptation of Frank L. Baum's "The Wizard of Oz." The fact that this new "Oz" was directed by Sam Raimi, maker of superhero adventures and horror pictures from "Darkman" to "Spider-Man," "The Evil Dead" to "Army of Darkness," is almost incidental. Raimi's signature touches are mostly tangential flourishes in another otherwise banal origin story, a prequel to one of the most popular Hollywood films of all time.
You basically know the story of "Oz" even if you haven't seen it yet, because the movie encourages viewers to watch characters grow into the roles we already associate them with. And that wouldn't be so bad if screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire didn't focus on annoying sidekicks or a cliched central conflict between James Franco's Wizard and the trio of witches he meets in Oz.
Watching our hero fill the clown-sized shoes of prophecy is only as unbearable as its creators' inability to make their tale distinct. But enlivening detail is absent from most of "Oz the Great and Powerful," a film that is largely distinguished by the fact that it's not quite as flavorless as it could have been (especially when compared to Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," which was also produced by Joe Roth). Yet when a film positions itself in the shadow of a beloved fantasy classic, passable isn't good enough. "Oz" never goes anywhere you don't expect it to.
Since Kapner and Lindsay-Abaire are obsessed with doubling, Oz is both the name of Franco's hero and the land that he travels to. Oscar Diggs is Oz and will soon be the Wizard of it. But when we meet him, Oz is just a carnival magician with dreams of becoming a great man, maybe the next Houdini, or even Edison. He out-and-out tells an old flame that he does not consider himself to be a good man because, as we see, he's a cad whose womanizing schemes are laughably obvious.
So when he stumbles into a midwestern twister, Oz pleads to the Higher Powers That Be to give him a second chance and let him prove that he can do better. He gets his wish when he lands in the other Oz and meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), a good witch who assumes Oz must be the wizard from a foreign land who's supposed to save Oz from the Wicked Witch. Oz is delighted to be treated like royalty and naturally gets by using basic sleight of hand. But when push comes to shove, and Theodora's imperious sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) sets Oz on the path to killing the Wicked Witch, Oz inevitably finds himself overwhelmed.
The film not only looks as unremarkable as Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," but it's entirely populated by threadbare, eager-to-please supporting characters. One performer who's as good as his paltry role is Zach Braff as Finley, a winged monkey in a bellhop's uniform, who's as cloying as Braff's characters normally are. But it's a struggle watching poor Michelle Williams, who plays Glinda the Good Witch, try to make the most out of a juice-less part, cajoling and pouting at Oz with great comic timing. She's so much better than her character, who exists only to motivate Oz, but she never gets much chance to prove it.
Raimi is the biggest waste of talent here. Though he makes the most out of the Wizard's big showdown with the Wicked Witch, the scene where two witches fight a climactic battle is more representative of the film's shortcomings. You can see Raimi's personality in the witch battle -- the flying antagonists, the ghoulish visage of the vanquished witch at fight's end -- but just barely.
A few gags, like when a water fairy spits in Oz's face after singing half of "Pop Goes the Weasel," or a sign at a fork in the road that points to both the Dark Forest and Chinatown, hint at a more idiosyncratic take on Baum's world that's never foregrounded. In fact, when Raimi's Munchkins start to sing and dance, you want them to make like Emo Spider-Man in "Spider-Man 3" and dance their hearts out. But they don't get to because "Oz the Great and Powerful" was apparently made by a committee whose honorary speaker just happens to be the director of "Drag Me to Hell."