James Franco lacks the barmy comic versatility to lift this fantasy spectacular out of the CG doldrums.
From the moment James Franco crashlands into the nauseating Blisstonia that is Oz 2.0, replete with Silly Symphonies flora and skittish river fairies, it's impossible not to see Sam Raimi's hyper-gloss prequel as anything more than a coattail-clinging retread of Tim Burton's candy-hued 2010 megahit, Alice In Wonderland.
It starts promisingly enough. In the film's note-perfect opening sequence, a gorgeous monochrome prologue that pays homage to Victor Fleming's 1939 Technicolor classic, we're introduced to cheapjack travelling magician Oscar 'Oz' Diggs (Franco), who puts as much effort into seducing his newest doe-eyed assistant as he does duping carnival patrons under a pop-up big top in dustbowl Kansas circa 1905.
It's this penchant for womanising that proves to be his undoing – after working his charms on the daughter of an overprotective Strong Man, Oz grabs his top hat and trusty bag of tricks and makes a dramatic escape in a hot-air balloon... straight into the path of an oncoming cyclone.
His subsequent arrival in the Land of Oz is signalled by a nifty aspect ratio shift and simultaneous flip from black-and-white to full-beam colour. It's a cute and well-executed ploy that's unforgivably given away in the trailer. And that's roughly where the magic of Oz The Great And Powerful runs out.
Not long after dropping in, Oz locks eyes on a beautiful witch named Theodora (a game Mila Kunis) who speaks of a great prophecy and looks at him like the Second Coming. Before you can say 'ruby slippers' he's striding through the gates of the Emerald City laying claim to its empty throne and mountains of gold. But there's a catch. As Theodora's elder sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) dutifully explains, in order to prove he's the real deal Oz will need to track down vile sorceress Glinda (Michelle Williams) and destroy her wand, thus rendering her powerless and bringing salvation to Ozmites everywhere.
And so our hero sets off on a long and unexpected journey where he'll discover that the fight between good and evil ain't no picnic and, more importantly, whether he's got what it takes to become a truly great man like his heroes Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini. In keeping with the Baum blueprint he's joined by two plucky yet irksome sidekicks – specifically a winged Capuchin in a bellhop uniform and a six-inch china doll – neither of whom move the plot forward but are good for the occasional cheap lark.
Despite sharing the majority of his scenes with this pair of computer-generated playmates and failing to establish much of a rapport with either due to some pretty flat scripting, Franco just about holds things together. By the time we get to the third-act fireworks, however, having been made to suffer a number of increasingly laboured narrative digressions and the usual Bruce Campbell cameo nonsense, little effort has been made to alter our perception of Oz the narcissistic fraudster, making it hard to believe in his eventual transition to lion-hearted humanitarian.
Disney has got it wrong once before, of course, in 1985, when editor Walter Murch's sole directorial effort Return To Oz was deemed too bleak and frightening for younger audiences. Perhaps a similarly daring and subversive update was never on the cards, but with a master of the dark arts like Raimi at the helm it's disappointing that the threat level peaks with a showpiece Wicked Witch of the West origin story subplot that's likely to raise more giggles than gasps.
Visually splendid but rarely spectacular, this is a film that expends most of its energy and budget reminding you of the wonders of Oz while failing to give you a reason to want to be there. Even the faint trace of nostalgia evoked through the welcome appearance of Munchkins, flying apes, dark forests and yellow brick roads can't mask the fact that, for the most part, Oz The Great And Powerful is just a(nother) bland Disney dish comprised of attractive A-list faces liberally drizzled in a gloopy CG jus.
If there's anyone likely to convince us an Oz reboot is a good idea, Sam's the man.
Not a face-palm inducing disaster but lacks character and imagination where it counts.
You won't want to return to this Oz.