Raimi attempts magic trick in ‘Oz’ prequel (VIDEO)

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley says "Oz: The Great and Powerful" pales in comparison to the 1939 classic, but is better than expected.

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON – Critics too often write reviews in their heads before seeing the movie. These black-and-white preconceptions color the experience like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and this was a film we critics were supposed to hate on principle. After all, how can you remake “The Wizard of Oz?”

Except, it’s not a remake. It’s a prequel. And while a number of publications — Variety, Salon, The Guardian, NBC News, Yahoo News, Moviefone — claim Disney’s “Oz: The Great and Powerful” pales in comparison to the “original,” they fail to mention that even the 1939 classic wasn’t the first.

It was just one of many adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and the live stage musical that toured the country for 290 performances from 1902 to 1919.

The first semi-cinematic attempt was by Baum himself with a 1908 multimedia presentation called “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” which mixed live actors, film and magic lantern slides.

This was followed by three silent shorts from the Selig Polyscope Company — “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1910), “Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz” (1910) and “The Land of Oz” (1910) — and three more by Baum’s own short-lived Oz Film Manufacturing Company — “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” (1914), “The Magic Cloak of Oz” (1914) and “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz” (1914). This was followed by two animated shorts and the first feature version, “The Wizard of Oz” (1925), written by Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum, who sold the film rights to MGM in 1937, setting up the Victor Fleming musical we all know and love.

I mention all this simply to say: let’s not criticize Disney simply for doing what MGM did. The 1939 classic is dear to my heart (see here), spanning the vast demographics of theater types who love Broadway’s “Wicked” to stoners who watch the film in sync with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” But let’s ask The Wizard for a little fairness and judge “Oz: the Great and Powerful” by its own merits.

The prequel introduces us to The Wizard when he was simply Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a Kansas circus magician of shaky ethics. When his hot air balloon is whisked away by a twister, he lands in the Land of Oz, where the beautiful witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) mistakes him as Oz, the future king of Emerald City as foretold by prophecy. Oscar goes along with it, meeting her two witch sisters, the kind-hearted Glinda (Michelle Williams) and the wicked Evanora (Rachel Weisz). The plot ultimately boils down to which witch is which (north, south, east, west), but I’ll let you see that for yourself.

Juggling our memories of Oz was a delicate dance for director Sam Raimi, as Warner Bros. owns the rights to the ’39 version and the ruby slippers were off-limits to Disney (although Raimi could have used the book’s silver shoes). As The Witch famously said, “These things must be done delicately.”

A team of Disney copyright lawyers changed the flying monkeys to winged baboons, altered the face paint of the Wicked Witch to a slightly different hue and made the munchkins more ethnically diverse, scrapping at least one hairstyle that was too close to the 1939 version.

You will, however, find a Yellow Brick Road and a witch’s castle that are eerily similar. The film also maintains the famous shift from black-and-white to color, but Raimi takes it a step further, and also shifts from a square-shaped 4:3 aspect ratio (as existed in 1939) to a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio. It’s nice to see at least some creative thought to the technical process.

As for the filmmaking itself, Raimi tries to marry the daring camera moves of “The Evil Dead” (1981) with the digital effects of “Spider-Man” (2002), messing with our 3D perspective to send us hurtling down waterfalls (you’ll also notice Raimi favorite Bruce Campbell as a Winkie Gate Keeper). It doesn’t quite work as a purely cinematic experience (i.e. “Life of Pi”), feeling more like Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) or, better yet, a Disneyland 3D ride (i.e. “The Muppets”).

Where the visuals do work, however, is with Oscar’s sidekicks, Finley the Monkey Bellhop (Zach Braff) and a porcelain China Doll (Joey King) who, like the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion are set up with alternate Kansas identities. We first see Finley as Oscar’s magician assistant, who merely wants his friendship, and China Doll is a girl in a wheelchair, who says, “Make me walk.” While Oscar can’t do either in Kansas, he achieves both in Oz, redeeming himself thanks to our belief in these magical digital creatures. If you have kids, they may very well enjoy this stuff, but beware of the winged baboons. They’ll spawn PG nightmares like Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch did for me as a kid.

As for adults, the experience is only occasionally magical. The story is scattered with an inconsistent tone, somewhat lazy love scenes and misses the whimsy of the musical numbers. Much of this falls on James Franco, who was cast after Johnny Depp turned down the role, and makes a far less likable hero than Judy Garland, while lacking the Wizard twinkle of Frank Morgan.

Perhaps most frustrating is that it all builds to a climax against not one, but two villains, neither of which lets us sing “ding dong the witch is dead.” Banished villains aren’t as satisfying as melted ones.

Clearly, Disney needed them alive for a sequel and knew that both the Witch of the East and the Witch of the West were alive at the start of the 1939 classic. Still, I would have loved to have seen a sliver of overlap with Dorothy’s house landing on The Wicked Witch; the one time “deus ex machina” would have worked. As Billie Burke’s Glinda sang, “When she fell out of Kansas, a miracle occurred.”

Still, as someone obsessed with the 1939 version, “Oz: The Great and Powerful” provides nostalgic pleasure in reliving the bubbles, poppies and crystal balls. It’s also fun escapism to see how the witch got her broom and how The Wizard invented his “man behind the curtain” projection. Whether you’re a magician posing as Oz, Baum presenting the first “Oz” film with magic lantern slides, or a current director reprising a movie classic, it’s all an Edison illusion, which this film humbly remembers.

It may lack the brains, heart and courage of the 1939 classic, but it’s a horse of a different color. Greatness lies beyond its grasp, somewhere over the rainbow, but it was better than expected. Maybe this is because a skiing accident left me unable to hit the critics screening out in Silver Spring. How refreshing it was to get outside the stuffy critics room and breathe the popcorn air like regular folks.

With the thoughts it’s thinking, it’s not another “Lincoln” (2012), but as family entertainment, it’s not a bad way to while away the hours. “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plow.”

★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray or check out his blog The Film Spectrum.