The funny, warm-hearted "Wizard of Oz" prequel "Oz the Great and Powerful" veers far enough from the Yellow Brick Road paved by the original film to avoid dangerous direct comparisons.
Too much similarity to the favorite film of several generations of moviegoers would doom any new release. There's also the matter of prequel maker Disney not owning rights to the original film.
So "Great and Powerful," based on the writings of "Wizard" book author L. Frank Baum, gives us James Franco's big stoner grin and affability in place of Judy Garland's big eyes and earnestness, and replaces the 1939 film's naivete with a certain knowingness.
Innocence leads to poignancy. Knowingness leads to winks and good times. "Great and Powerful" whips the curtain back from its first scene, exposing would- be wizard Oscar "Oz" Diggs (Franco) who later will land in a leadership-hungry Oz via tornado as an opportunistic Kansas carnival magician.
This early revelation sets up Oz as sham-happy even in low-stakes situations, and provides a foundation for con-man-out-of-water laughs and a beautiful friendship between man and monkey once the magician hits Oz.
The monkey, Finley (voiced by a lively Zach Braff, alternating sweetness, exasperation and enthusiasm) can fly and perhaps even menace. But he leaves the scary stuff to this film's flying baboons, who are likely to unsettle children who see this PG-rated film much the way the original flying monkeys did "Wizard" viewers.
Finley prefers being helpful, and he serves as Oz's traveling companion in this new land. Computer-generated imagery surrounds this pair, and Finley himself is a CG creation, yet there is no artifice between the characters. Their interactions help "Great and Powerful" whiz by despite its two-hour-plus running time.
Finley owes Oz a debt and is paying in servitude. Oz takes advantage of Finley's honor because that's what he does. Without a second thought, Oz burdens the tiny monkey with carrying his satchel. Shots of the flying monkey grounded by the bag's weight are repeated often but are always funny.
Casting Franco as anyone great and powerful, or even someone pretending to be those things, is a risk. He lacks fire in his eyes. But his easy charm and innate likability suit Oz, a striver but not truly a conniver. Franco's lack of guile makes it plausible when Finley and other Oz residents get behind Oz's efforts to convince people he is the wizard they were waiting for and not the faker he is. The land of Oz is under attack from a wicked witch and is in need of a savior, and the carnival magician is all it's got.
Directed by Sam Raimi (the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" films), "Great and Powerful" always tempers its knowingness with kindness, never taking that extra step into cynicism. Oz's travels on the Yellow Brick Road represent his journey to recognizing the goodness within him and his own true worth. That is very much in keeping with the "Wizard" spirit.
Also keeping with "Wizard" are the sometimes- terrifying flying creatures. My theory is that "Wizard of Oz" became a classic partly because it traumatizes children so much upon first viewing that they return to the film repeatedly to soothe their psyches.
The flying baboons of "Great and Powerful" do not shock initially, but grow scarier when you see their teeth, and because here they appear in 3-D. These scenes stretch the PG rating.
Visually, "Great and Powerful" does not stun as "Wizard" must have in 1939, or as "Life of Pi" did in 2012. Vibrant colors and bursting flowers grab the eye, and the 3-D adds welcome texture, but Oz also looks as if it were clearly composed brick-by-yellow-CGI-brick.
Raimi might have attempted a studio-bound look because "Wizard" was largely shot on a soundstage.
That's unlikely, though, since "Great and Powerful" reportedly cost more than $200 million to make, and those are not kitschy homage numbers.
The film's visual artists prove more deft with action scenes than in creating backdrops. They also work well with smaller canvases, like Finley, the wonderfully expressive monkey whose visual veracity survives endless close-ups. A scene in which Oz and Finley pick up a new traveling companion the delicate, porcelain China Girl (voiced by Joey King) goes beyond believable to magical.
The depiction of human women is more of a mixed bag. Michelle Williams plays Oz's chief supporter, the witch Glinda, and it's a kick to see an actress who so often plays against her angelic looks fully embrace them.
Williams does not simper like the Glindas we know from "Wizard" or the popular stage musical and prequel "Wicked." Her beneficence comes with wisdom and pragmatism.
The stunner among "Great and Powerful" witches is Rachel Weisz's Evanora, Oz's guide to the Emerald City. Weisz could bring old-Hollywood glamour to a house coat. Here she's decked out in sequins and agendas, and so magnetic you wish her character were better drawn.
Sketchier still is Evanora's sister, Theodora, played by the lovely Mila Kunis. Theodora's behavior baffles, and the twisted sisterly bond with Evanora goes mostly unexplored.
Exactly who serves as the wicked witch is a surprise, yet not a particular interesting one. "Oz" fans looking for strong, fully developed female characters should see the feminist, revisionist "Wicked" onstage. Or better yet, rent "The Wizard of Oz."
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
Cast: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis
Director: Sam Raimi
Rated PG (for sequences of action and scary images and brief mild language)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.