Relax, my pretties. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a lollapalooza of funhouse thrills and visually sumptuous filmmaking. The film opens with such a flourish and bang that some viewers may feel they’ve been swept up in a tornado themselves.
Respectful of the classic original film but never timid, “Oz” represents the dizzy high point of Sam (“Spider-Man”) Raimi’s considerable career. He directs with skill and velocity, tossing another unsuspecting Midwesterner into a whirlwind that leads to a dazzling land of munchkins and airborne monkeys. This time it’s not a brave farm girl in braids who makes the trip, but Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (James Franco). He’s a traveling-circus magician of minor achievements, scientific aspirations (his hero is Thomas Edison, “the wizard of Menlo Park”) and grand self-regard.
The smugness that has soured some of Franco’s work suits a character who would rather be great than good. He makes a young, svelte, rather hot conjurer who has broken many a heart, including that of Dorothy Gale’s mom-to-be (liquid-eyed Michelle Williams, resplendent in a blonde wig). Franco’s strained smile hints at inner misgivings. Other Oz characters have wanted brains, heart or nerve; Diggs needs a soul.
Raimi’s keen sense of style serves the material well. The film’s black-and-white opening captures the drab, threadbare world of Dust Bowl Kansas with claustrophobic, boxed-in shots that could have been lifted from a 1930s B movie. When storm-tossed Diggs floats into Oz in his hot-air balloon, the film image expands to widescreen proportions as lush lollipop hues gradually saturate the frame. The sets explode with color and detail, as seamless and believable as a land of imagination can be.
In Oz, the happy hypocrite finds his niche, a wonderland whose naive populace take him for their long-foretold savior. He’s quick to take advantage, first of Mila Kunis, playing a ravishing young witch who falls for his well-practiced come-ons. Her sister witch, regal Rachel Weisz, seems equally taken by the handsome newcomer. Kunis is traumatized, the tracks of her tears furrowing into her cheeks as dainty scars. Williams reappears as the land’s most purehearted witch, gazing at the bumbling, blowhard Diggs with knowing, tolerant affection.
The plot is a complicated skein of unrelated fairy-tale elements. We encounter Franklin, a humble winged monkey; China Girl, a cream-skinned porcelain doll with wistful bright blue eyes; and Knuck (“Bad Santa’s” diminutive Tony Cox), a testy court herald. There is some metaphorical malarkey about building a family out of the defective materials you’re given, but it’s just so much filler.
The payoff is a whirligig climax in which Diggs fights the cackling, fireball-throwing, lightning-fingered forces of bad magic. He wins the day literally with smoke and mirrors. Raimi has great fun with the fake wizard’s command of theatrical illusion amid his lovingly rendered world of cinema magic. The special effects are appropriately out of this world.
While there’s really not a performer here who ranks with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr, there’s plenty in this enormous production to charm the adults and wow the junior members. China Girl (voiced by Joey King) should sell a million dolls come holiday season, and Franklin (voiced by Zach Braff) is so endearing that pet shops will be flooded with monkey requests. Unless my crystal ball fails me, families will be off to see this wizard again and again.