There are few films as sacred as "The Wizard of Oz". So if you're going to tamper with that beloved classic, you'd better have something of a Wizard behind the curtain - or at least behind the camera. "Oz the Great and Powerful", a prequel to the 1939 classic, has Sam Raimi. And, against all odds, the man behind the "Evil Dead" series and "Drag Me to Hell" delivers a film that has the brains, courage and, especially, heart to stand alongside its predecessor. Of course, Mr. Raimi is no stranger to handling beloved franchises (two out of three "Spider-man" movies ain't bad) and his comfort with big budgets and special effects comes in handy here as well. The script - based on the L. Frank Baum books - is basically an origin story for The Wizard.
In a playful opening sequence, set in 1905 Kansas and filmed (naturally) in black and white, we meet Oscar Diggs (you can Google his seven middle names), a carnival magician and all around charlatan. James Franco inhabits the role almost solely based on his ability to be endearingly, harmlessly sleazy.
Oscar - or "Oz", as he's called - is something of a ladies man who runs afoul of the carnival's strongman, sending him on a madcap escape via a hot-air balloon. No sooner does he take off than he's swept up on a tornado that, you guessed it, lands him in the merry ol' land of Oz.
Of course, this isn't your grandfather's Oz. This Oz has the full firepower - and budget - of a Hollywood special effects department at its disposal. And so we are greeted with humongous musical flowers, 3D hummingbirds, and a whitewater rapids sequence tailor-made for a theme park.
Once Oz lands, he immediately becomes the focus of a prophecy and a trio of witches (of varying degrees of goodness). Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis acquit themselves well, but Michelle Williams is absolutely (and appropriately) radiant as Glinda.
The film is largely about Oz's quest to defeat the wicked witch and restore peace to the land. Along the way, the smart script turns the familiar totems of the original into touch points for the franchise. The black-and-white, the tornados, the yellow brick road, scarecrows, lions, and so on. It all adds an element of comfort to the proceedings.
In the end, as you might imagine, the story wraps up nicely and actually makes you want to watch the original again - which might be the film's greatest feat. Yes, it's far too effects-heavy - but then so was the original, in its time - and yes, Mr. Franco is nearly impossible to take seriously. But this "Oz", while not exactly powerful, is pretty great. It may not have much at stake, but it's got a ton of heart.