The ideal way to appreciate Oz the Great and Powerful, of course, would be to divorce it as thoroughly as possible from The Wizard of Oz. That's impossible to do, though, since director Sam Raimi and company have made a film that structurally, narratively, and visually mirrors Victor Fleming's 1939 film every chance it gets. But while Raimi worked from a script that doesn't exactly benefit from comparisons to Fleming's beloved adaptation, Oz the Great and Powerful is more successful than it has any right to be. Never mind the script's deficiencies; Raimi's prequel is a fun (if overinflated) movie that works beautifully as a guided tour through a vividly rendered Oz, and you couldn't ask for a better—or more demented—tour guide.
Fleming's film serves as a template for Raimi's; things begin in Kansas, in black and white. No drab farmstead for the Evil Dead director, though—his Oz has style to spare from the first frames (an awesome credit sequence that, in 3D, is nearly worth the price of admission all by itself). We meet the title character, for now a con artist named Oscar Diggs (a typically smarmy but charming James Franco), at a country carnival, preparing to swindle a few farmers out of some cash with a show that combines old-fashioned stage magic with turn-of-the-century spiritualist chicanery. Oz is a likeable jerk; he exploits his loyal assistant (Zach Braff) and blows off his dream girl (Michelle Williams) in favor of a pursuit of greatness that, if confined to the real world, would probably be futile. The crowd calls shenanigans when Oz can't heal a girl in a wheelchair (Joey King), and the huckster hops the first twister out of Kansas with nothing but his beat-up top hat and bag of stage tricks.
When Oz touches down in the land that bears his name, Raimi drops the gimmicky conceit of the opening scenes in favor of an unevenly paced but often delirious fairy tale. Raimi might have seemed like a puzzling choice at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that Oz is a sandbox he was destined to play in: a candy-colored fever dream littered with monsters and the occasional gothic set piece. Raimi offers plenty of nods to his fans, but he does it with a magician's flourish; an early gag involving vines is hilarious—and more than a little trangressive if you've seen The Evil Dead—but its double punchline makes it just as much fun for kids who probably don't get jokes about lascivious trees.
That's the sort of tightrope that Raimi often walks in Oz. He tries to make a movie that pays frequent homage to a classic while also doing his own thing—two goals that sometimes don't complement one another. Oz occasionally gets too caught up in being a prequel, at the expense of telling its own story. Take, for instance, the plot: the main character is tasked with retrieving an object belonging to a powerful witch, and he assembles a motley crew of allies along the way, most of whom bear a striking resemblance to those he left behind in Kansas.
Oz gets caught up in a power struggle between a trio of witches that includes bubbly Glinda (Williams), naive Theodora (Mila Kunis), and conniving Evanora (Rachel Weisz). To say more would be a spoiler, but the whole thing leads to a bonkers and visually stunning third act that makes up for the film's earlier missteps. It's here that Raimi pulls off his best trick of all. He thoroughly owns what might have been Oz's greatest weakness—its reliance on technical wizardry over storytelling—and turns it into a narrative hook and a cheer-worthy plot point.
If Oz is sketchy when it comes to plot and originality, though, it manages to make some pretty astute observations about the mechanics of storytelling—both its classic core and its many modern bells and whistles. Oz is sometimes slapdash in the way it goes about it, but it's ultimately a story about the creation of stories—their heroes and villains, to be exact. Its best moments involve the birth of cultural icons, and it hits those notes beautifully. It would have benefitted from more appropriate casting in at least one instance: Franco is a charming cad and even Billie Burke would have to admit that Williams is perfectly cast as Glinda, but a certain, otherwise capable young actress can't hold a broomstick to Margaret Hamilton's green-skinned ghoul. But Raimi is a master showman, and his Oz is well worth the trip.