• Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company

Oz the Great and Powerful
** stars
Opens Friday

In the opening scenes of Oz the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s pretty but rickety prequel to The Wizard of Oz, huckster stage magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is preparing for his show with traveling circus. The year is 1905. The place is Kansas, of course. And there’s a storm blowing in.

It appears that Oscar — the ladies call him Oz — is something of a cad. He’s got a girl in every town, and he treats his earnest stage assistant Frank (Zach Braff) like a servant. When his one maybe-true-love Annie (Michelle Williams) implores him to be a good man, Oscar stares ruefully across darkening Kansas plains. He doesn’t want to be a good man. He wants to be a great man, like Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison.

Oscar gets his chance when a tornado interrupts his latest getaway, via hot air balloon, and spirits him to the magical land of Oz. In a glorious 15-minute visual effect sequence that will get your blood racing (and your hopes up), director Raimi pulls out all the stops. As with the original Oz, he transitions from black-and-white to kaleidoscopic color, then opens up the frame as the picture gets wider and the 3-D effects kick in.

Oz boasts gorgeous visuals throughout, with skillfully executed digital and practical effects and artful use of 3-D. Familiar sights like the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City pop with new texture. New fanciful locations, such as the porcelain village of China Town, evoke the wonder of the first film.

All the prettiness is a welcome distraction as it becomes clear, during the movie’s middle passages, that our hero isn’t quite up to snuff. Franco is not a particularly likeable performer — he always seems a little bit above it all, a little too pleased with himself. It doesn’t help that his character here shares similar qualities.

The story doesn’t give him much, either. Oscar is essentially a charlatan during his adventures in Oz. He agrees to pose as the great and powerful wizard and makes the acquaintance of three witch sisters — Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Williams again). There’s a low-simmering seduction vibe in several scenes, and an awkward love quadrangle develops. It never really plays, and it feels too low-stakes for the epic fantasy storytelling. Our hero in the original Oz is a little girl who desperately wants to get back home. Our hero in the new Oz is a smarmy rogue who wants to get rich and score.

Oz the Great and Powerful picks up steam again toward the end, with some inventive storytelling twists that explain the world Dorothy will later discover. Oscar finds redemption and Raimi finally finds the heart the film so desperately needs. He also throws in some nifty stylistic flourishes that will be familiar to anyone who has seen his Evil Dead movies. And Mila Kunis really tears it up as the most interesting of the three witch sisters. She makes the movie’s most startling transformation, and provides its scariest scenes. I’d have liked to see the film follow her more closely, but I guess that story has already been told.

Oz isn’t a terrible movie, but it finally disappoints. Like its lead actor, it’s very pretty to look at yet never inspires much confidence or affection. The images dazzle, but the story doesn’t linger.