Review: Return to Oz falls short

“Oz the Great and Powerful” strikes a good balance between paying homage to its glorious predecessor and charting its own individual course.

A fairly good balance, that is.

I found the ending intensely disappointing – but for most of its length, this “Oz” is clever, heartfelt and luscious to look at.

Rather than taking up one of L. Frank Baum’s 13 other Oz books, the new film serves as a prequel, building backstory from a single chapter in Baum’s first installment.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a two-bit circus magician whose hot-air balloon gets carried off to Oz in a cyclone; there, he encounters three different witches and learns that his penchant for womanizing can have catastrophic consequences.

The folks behind “Great and Powerful” could not get permission to use any material from the beloved original – no songs, costumes, props or sets; so they start essentially from the ground up, building a world that feels familiar but has no recognizable landmarks from the 1939 classic.

They open with appealing, retro-style credits and continue through a prologue shot in glowing sepia tones.

Once Diggs reaches Oz, the palette blossoms into radiant colors bathing sumptuous landscapes and sunlit skies; it’s amazing how modern-day computers convey the same sense of otherworldly wonder spawned by the original’s lovely matte paintings.

Like Dorothy before him – or, perhaps, after – the would-be wizard is given a quest and sets off on the yellow-brick road, acquiring an odd assortment of helpers, including an overworked chimp, a familiar witch named Glinda (Michelle Williams) and “China Girl,” who is just that – a ceramic figurine about one foot tall and very much alive.

This character is an absolute triumph; few hearts will fail to melt when the wizard carefully repairs her shattered legs, revealing to us – and perhaps to himself – that he really does have a good heart.

(And of course, he’s also learning to undo the sort of damage he previously wrought on fragile young lasses.)

With these helpers and a mass of charming Oz-ites – including many munchkins – Oscar works to overthrow the other two witches, nicely played by Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.

(Can’t tell you which witch becomes Wicked from the West – though both reveal a lot more cleavage than Margaret Hamilton would ever have attempted.)

The way Oscar marshals his peaceful helpers into an effective display of “magical power” is another of the film’s great charms; the climatic confrontation is most satisfying. My principal complaint is that, after carefully following the first film’s trajectory, this one never returns Oscar to his original black-and-white life – thus missing a chance to suggest that this Oz-trip was a dream in which Oscar’s subconscious chastised him for treating women so poorly.

(And as in the first film, actors from the prologue show up in Oz, further hinting that the trip is a dream.)

Some may answer that the wizard had to remain in Oz for Dorothy’s later visit – but then, her trip also was a dream, and needn’t align itself fully with this one.

That letdown nearly ruined the film for me; here’s hoping others won’t mind it so much.

**1/2 (out of four)

The film is rated PG for frightening images and noisy action.