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Serving as a prequel to the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” the new-in-theaters “Oz the Great and Powerful” has great ambitions, most of which are sadly unfulfilled.

Hidden beneath the many reasons to criticize this film is a fantastic story, a clever way of explaining and previewing the characters we all love from the original, Judy Garland classic. At the very beginning and at the climax of the film, audiences are treated to a glimpse of what this movie could have been, and those few moments are almost worth the price of admission.

But unfortunately, the film between those two high points is largely dull, desensitizing and practically painful.

The worst crime in the film is its woefully banal and mundane script, which gives the actors nothing to work with and the audience no poetry, no prose, no sense of wonder or whimsy. The characters’ everyday conversations of juvenile depth are flat-out boring, a shame when the dazzling special effects, creative 3-D touches and built-in appeal of a return to Oz could have captivated the audience.

Lead actor James Franco tries hard to carry the film, but he’s not quite up to it, and the choice to cast Mila Kunis as arguably the picture’s most important role was a disaster. Clearly she was cast more for her popularity and sex appeal than her ability to steal the show, which the story required her to do … and she didn’t.

In the end, director Sam Raimi chose to fill the holes in the film with an overdose of bizarre, Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Avatar scenery, assaulting the senses with a never-ending blast of CGI effects slathered on so thick it becomes suffocating. Too much. Just too, too much.

The story itself follows a con-man carnival magician, Oscar “Oz” Diggs, as he escapes the fallout from his shenanigans in a hot-air balloon, only to get caught up in a tornado and transported to the bizarre land that oddly bears his name.

But once this trickster crash-lands in Oz, mistaken for the great “wizard” prophesied to free the land from a wicked witch, he proceeds to turn Oz upside down, unknowingly setting up a future date with another Kansan named Dorothy. Thrust toward a confrontation with both the witch and the ghosts of his past, Oz must choose whether he’s really nothing more than charlatan, or whether he’s worthy of the faith the people of Oz put in their “wizard.” Can he lay aside his dreams of greatness and simply choose to be a good man instead?

The messages of the story – although they flirt with being a tad humanistic in suggesting all people are really “good” inside – largely hit the right notes, offering a mostly child-friendly, frenetic spectacle of a morality play that the average 6-8-year-old will eat up with glee and parents will feel warm and fuzzy about.

The film even flirts with biblical parallels, including a key scene where a character is tempted (with an apple, no less) to embrace the knowledge of evil, only to have her eyes opened in discovering the tempter is also a deceiver.

In yet another scene, a character banishes a villain “in the name of my father,” which fits nicely in parallel to the banishment of Satan from heaven.

Yet for all its good intentions and decent lessons and big-budget production values, the film succumbs to too, too many faults, from the casting, to the woeful script, all the way down the makeup, which, unbelievably, is distractingly bad in several scenes. And unlike the original, there aren’t even any good musical numbers to fill in the gaps.

In the end, “Oz the Great and Powerful” will appeal to some children and the story will linger in the minds of “Wizard” fans, but the movie itself is an utter disappointment, a case study in how to mess up what could have been a great and, well … powerful film.

Content advisory:

  • “Oz the Great and Powerful,” rated PG, contains only 2 minor profanities and no obscenities.
  • The film contains some romantic themes, a few kisses and a fair amount of cleavage among the three “beautiful” witches. Additionally, actress Mila Kunis is played up for a bit of sex appeal, wrapped in tight, leather pants in a few scenes and in another stripping off her top in a fit to reveal a cleavage-displaying corset.
  • The film – like the 1939 classic – does have a few frightening moments that might spook younger audiences. It also has a fair amount of violence, although mostly slapstick and never particularly graphic, clearly targeted at a PG audience.
  • The movie has a few, brief religious references, such as mention of heaven and angels, evil spirits and a character who declares, “Praise be!” – but none of it has any real significance. Three witches also display fantasy magic powers, including fireballs and flying and lightning bolts and magic wands and crystal balls and what-not, and Glinda is depicted as a “good witch,” but never are the witches shown casting spells, chanting or in any way practicing the dark arts as seen in occult practices in the real world.

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