"Oz the Great and Powerful" cannot match the wonder and magic of the 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz" — at least in the estimation of America's top critics.
The film, which stars James Franco as the wizard and Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz as a trio of witches, is a prequel of sorts that explains how the title character drifted out of Kansas and into the mystical land. It also unwraps the mystery of how a certain evil witch got her signature greenish hue.
The Emerald City update had many reviewers, such as the New York Times' Manohla Dargis, wishing they could click some ruby slippers together to expunge the memory of Disney's attempt to ride the powerful brand recognition of writer L. Frank Baum's children's fables to cross-promotional gold. The film scored a so-so 57 percent "rotten" rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Not that all of the notices were bad. Some critics, such as USA Today's Claudia Puig, praised Raimi for executing a worthy exercise in escapism.
Ultimately, any bad reviews are unlikely to diminish audiences' interest in heading down the Yellow Brick Road. "Oz the Great and Powerful" is expected to generate as much as $85 million at the box office this weekend.
Count Alonso Duralde among the film's partisans. TheWrap critic hailed the film for nimbly avoiding the trap set by umpteenth reboots and prequels and finding surprises in a familiar story.
"In revisiting the iconic 1939 classic 'The Wizard of Oz' (and the L. Frank Baum novels that inspired it), there are any number of missteps that director Sam Raimi ('Spider-Man,' 'Drag Me to Hell') and screenwriters Mitchell Kapner ('The Whole Nine Yards') and David Lindsay-Abaire ('Rabbit Hole') could have taken on that particular Yellow Brick Road," Duralde writes.
"That 'Oz the Great and Powerful' is so thoroughly effective both on its own terms and as a prequel to one of the most beloved movies ever made indicates that this team has magic to match any witch or wizard."
In the Times, Dargis slammed the film as the nadir of globalized, bloated-budgeted inanity and a sad comment on the sorry state of the modern movie business.
"Can the major studios still make magic? From the looks of 'Oz the Great and Powerful,' a dispiriting, infuriating jumble of big money, small ideas and ugly visuals, the answer seems to be no," Dargis asked and answered.
She went on to add that beyond the problem of barely masking its profit motivations, the film suffered from a troubling regressivism when it comes to sexual politics. In particular, she was none too thrilled that the Wicked Witch turns literally green with envy after Oz rejects her advances.
"The bigger bummer, though, is that the studio that has enchanted generations with Tinker Bell and at least a few plucky princesses has backed a movie that has such backward ideas about female characters that it makes the 1939 'Wizard of Oz' look like a suffragist classic," Dargis writes.
Kenneth Turan praised the film's visual style and effective use of 3D in his review in the Los Angeles Times, but faulted the picture for being a jumble of visual effects and discordant storylines.
"The moral here is that we are capable of more than we know, so how can we not be won over — especially if munchkins are involved?" Turan writes. "But 'Oz the Great and Powerful' is a rougher slog getting there than it needs to be."
It's better than Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" served as Dana Stevens' backhanded compliment. The Slate reviewer admired Raimi's cojones in taking on a classic film, but said "Oz the Great and Powerful" suffers in comparison to its predecessor.
"The next time I watch The Wizard of Oz — which, given the fact I have a 7-year-old daughter, will probably be within a matter of days — I may briefly flash back on the memory Oz the Great and Powerful, perhaps amusing myself with the notion that Billie Burke’s burbling Glinda and Frank Morgan’s crotchety Oz are old flames awkwardly crossing paths again in their middle age," Stevens writes. "But the towering masterpiece that is The Wizard of Oz will soon absorb this small insult."
Joe Morgenstern clearly wished he could back up over the rainbow and return to the more gripping confines of, say, Topeka. The Wall Street Journal critic said the film has energy to spare, but all of that visual enthusiasm doesn't translate into enchantment. Despite the millions thrown at the visual effects, Morgenstern implies that Raimi and company cannot find the story's human heart.
"What 'Oz' might well have borrowed from its predecessor, however, is what allowed Garland and her colleagues to be great — a sense of drama that still resonates with contemporary audiences," Morgenstern writes. "Remember what happens even before 'The Wizard of Oz' gets to the tornado? Dorothy sings a sublime song, 'Over the Rainbow,' then loses her precious Toto, then recovers him. The relevant lessons aren't in the cuteness of the pooch, or the matchless song, or even the use of music (although Disney's 'Oz' does use one dismally unmusical ditty). They're in the urgency of yearning and despair that the song and Toto's loss convey."
For Puig, "Oz the Great and Powerful" may fall short of the original film, but it has its pleasures. The USA Today critic praised Raimi for creating a "powerfully entertaining fantasy" and commended Weisz for embracing her evil role.
"In creating additional mythology, director Sam Raimi has fashioned a viable escapist fantasy in its own right," Puig writes. "His blend of computer-generated images and gorgeously designed sets enhances the story's theatrical quality. This is the rare case where 3D doesn't feel superfluous, but integral to the plot."