1. The notion of doing a prequel to The Wizard of Oz focused on Oz himself isn't an inherently terrible idea. The wizard, after all, is the one character in that story who's neither completely good nor bad; he's full of shit, sure, but he also means well for Oz and ultimately tries to grant everybody's wishes anyway. The story of how he got to Oz, how he ended up in charge in the first place, could be a fascinating one. Unfortunately, that's not the story of Oz, the Great and Powerful. The story of Oz, the Great and Powerful is that Alice in Wonderland made a bunch of money, so Disney thought they'd try to same remake/reboot thing with Oz. There are so many missed opportunities here.
2. The movie tries to parallel the original film in ways that are both in homage to and, sometimes, in outright copyright theft of. (Disney had to base the film on the book, which is now in the public domain, rather than the film, which is owned by Warner Bros.) In L. Frank Baum's book, Oz is a real place, not a dream populated by characters from Dorothy's home life, but this film steals that conceit. A carnival-magician huckster named Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco) is swept into a tornado in Kansas, and suddenly the world's black-and-white turns widescreen 3-D color, with his assistant, ex-girlfriend and audience members as the slightly altered real-life denizens of Oz. This sort of had my brain spinning. So, this is Oscar's dream, and then Dorothy is having a dream within that dream? Were they both taken away by the same tornado? When Dorothy wakes up and returns to Kansas, does she cease to exist? Did she ever exist? What if we're all just insignificant specks in this grand universe?
3. Anyway, we follow Oscar as he is drawn into an ongoing battle between the various witches, wicked and otherwise, in Oz. It's perhaps not surprising that the three witches (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz as the wicked sisters, Michelle Williams as Glinda the good witch) are the best parts of the movie; all three actresses have a grand time both occupying and transcending parts that are roughly three times as old as they are. (Kunis has a harder time than the other two, but she's still game.) Williams, in particular, has a witty take on a character who is basically goodness personified; she's in her own joke. The movie also looks sharp and impressive, even if a lot of it is empty candy. And there are occasional nods to the original film that feel warm and respectful, particularly when a field full of scarecrows are used as a mock army. Director Sam Raimi has lost most of his nihilist edge, but he can still pull together a set-piece when he needs to.
4. But this thing has to start and end with the rather disastrous casting of Franco as Oscar. The Wizard is supposed to be a showman, a song-and-dance man, the type of fellow you can imagine conceivably selling your town a monorail. (W.C. Fields was originally cast as the Wizard, and even though he would have just gotten in the way, you can see what the producers were thinking.) The Wizard is a charming vaudeville peddler, a bullshitter. It's a storied archetype, the selfish egotist who learns he's a good guy after all. It doesn't require much energy to play a guy like this, but Franco still can't muster it. He never can quite get the patter down, and he never feels truly invested in what's going on; he mostly just looks sleepy. (He's also the worst acting-against-a-green-screen actor I've ever seen.) I spent most of the movie trying to figure out what actor would have been the right pick, and while Jim Carrey and Steve Carell and Will Ferrell and Bradley Cooper all immediately came to mind, the fact is, almost anyone would have brought more to the table than Franco. Certain movies Franco seems to decide it's just not worth working himself up for. This was definitely one of them.
5. The movie ends up getting bogged down in bland set-pieces and dull characterization—Oscar's fellow travelers on his journey are all more boring than freaking Toto—and it strays so far from the whimsy and joy of the original that you forget the two films are even part of the same universe. (I hesitate to say this, considering this movie is long enough as is, but it probably could have used some songs.) It doesn't ruin anything about the first film, because that movie's a classic, and this is just a half-hearted cash grab. But this is still sacred territory we're talking about here. If you're gonna do a prequel to the freaking Wizard of Oz, you should probably put some more thought into it past just the premise. And for crissakes, don't give us a cute flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff. You're better off just forgetting this ever happened.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.