In reality, the best we could hope for is exactly what we got: a reasonably smart, imaginative spin on the 1939 MGM classic. By now, the world created by novelist L. Frank Baum more than a century ago feels like a myth without an origin, and "Oz the Great and Powerful" wisely avoids slavish loyalty to any canon. Instead, it tries to fashion a fresh story from old material.
Our new hero, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), is a womanizing carnival magician whisked by a twister from a monochrome Kansas into a rainbow-hued Oz. Fortuitously mistaken for a legendary wizard come to reign over a kingdom full of gold, Oscar finds that life ain't nothing but witches and money: He seduces Theodora (a terrific Mila Kunis), makes a play for chilly Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and ultimately falls for Glinda (Michelle Williams). Can you guess which witch will turn green with jealousy?
"Oz the Great and Powerful" brims with ideas (playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is a co-writer), though they're a mixed bag. Oscar's computer-animated friends pale next to Dorothy's vivacious companions, but Finley the flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) has his moments, and the chipped little China Girl (Joey King) is quite touching. Franco overdoes the fakery -- he seems to be conning us, too -- but Williams transforms the bubbly Glinda into a smart, sexy, sophisticated figure. "If you can make them believe," she tells the magician, "then you're wizard enough."
PLOT A carnival magician travels to a magical land where he's welcomed as a real wizard.
RATING PG (some scary imagery)
BOTTOM LINE Forget comparisons to the 1939 classic and you might enjoy this fun, fluffy fantasy.
Great and powerful Sam Raimi connections
Any Sam Raimi fan knows the "Evil Dead" auteur likes to slip in cameo appearances for his actor brother, Ted, and his cult-star pal Bruce Campbell. They both pop up in "Oz the Great and Powerful" as, respectively, a small-town skeptic at a magic show who yells, "I see a wire!" in the black-and-white opening sequence, and a Winkie guard at the gates of the Emerald City. But there are less Oz-tentatious cameos as well.
There's Jim Moll -- Raimi's former theater teacher at Birmingham Groves High School in suburban Detroit, near where "Oz" was filmed. Now interim principal at the nearby Royal Oak High School, the mustachioed Moll plays Townsperson No. 10.
"Oh, my God, yes," Raimi confirms when asked. "A lot of my high-school teachers who had a great influence over me, and junior high-school teachers, are playing in the crowd scenes."
So are The Ladies of the Evil Dead, as the three actresses who played the college coeds in Raimi's 1981 horror film are known on the fan-convention circuit.
"Those three girls make a little guest appearance in one shot in the picture," Raimi says. "Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Seyferth," now Theresa Tilly, who went by Sarah York on "The Evil Dead" since she was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and wasn't supposed to do a non-SAG movie. (She was recognized and fined.) "They have a cameo as three townspeople," of the Oz variety known as Quadlings. -- Frank Lovece