March 22 2013 12:00 AM

'Great' expectations

Courtesy photo
In a perfect world, a visionary filmmaker such as Sam Raimi could make a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” without having it compared to its 1939 predecessor, inarguably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. Sure, we’re in the middle of a spate of subpar big screen adaptations and “re-imaginings” of classic children’s stories, but it’s hardly fair to make Raimi pay for the sins of his peers. But films aren’t made in a vacuum; every allusion has its price.

It’s worth noting, however, that Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz” was already the fourth cinematic outing for L. Frank Baums beloved book series that spanned 14 titles. Which raises the question: With so many other adaptations and a wealth of available source material, what makes the MGM version so indelible? If you’ll pardon the treacle, the answer is … magic. Those Munchkins, that music, that Technicolor landscape — all of it, pure movie magic.

And magic is exactly what Raimi has conjured once again with his masterful “Oz the Great and Powerful.” The Michigan-born director (“Army of Darkness,” the ‘00s “Spider-Man” series) has crafted a candy-colored world that is simultaneously believable and bewitchingly dreamlike, taking full advantage of the advances that allow CGI to make the imaginary tangible. An obsequious flying monkey wearing an adorable bellhop uniform, a cracked porcelain heroine whose impudence trumps her fragility, a mob of frightening, snarling, bat-winged baboons — this movie makes you believe they’re genuine citizens of another realm.

It’s propelled by a charming story that’s familiar, yet still engaging. Screenwriters Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) have concocted a whirlwind of a script, whisking you from a traveling carnival in rural Kansas through the dizzying eye of a twister before zipping you up and down a certain yellow brick road. “Oz” was designed to be seen in 3D, and its use never feels cheap or gimmicky — the hot air balloon ride in IMAX 3D is worth the price of admission alone. And guess what? There’s an honest-to-goodness moral at the end that is, I daresay, exponentially better than “there’s no place like home.”

James Franco makes for a game leading man, imbuing Oz (the character) with a likable, albeit slippery, charm. His sleight-of-hand tricks become an organic part of both his character and the story, where the line between steampunk and the supernatural becomes subtly unclear. Michelle Williams breathes new life into the character of Glinda, elevating what could have been a one-note caricature of wholesomeness into a tenacious Muse-cum-lieutenant general.

As in the original, several actors wind up playing dual roles, which is the source of the movie’s lone weak spot — Mila Kunis, whose attempt to pull off her particular two-fer is, at times, distractingly bad. She’s OK as the sweet sorceress Theodora, younger sister to Rachel Weisz’s malevolent Evanora, but after her character’s transformation, she utterly fails to instill the role with any sense of menace — or even gravity.

However, the real triumph of “Oz the Great and Powerful” is Raimi’s idiosyncratic vision. The Land of Oz doesn’t feel like Narnia or Middle-earth or a wacky chocolate factory; it feels like Oz, teeming with life and imagination. It has heart, and that’s something that’s hard to pull off. It would be wrong to call this a great movie; greatness is reserved for films that transcend the medium, and in that regard, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is simply good. But, as we learn, sometimes goodness is a better quality than greatness.