OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (PG) General Release ***

Disney has had the rights to L. Frank Baum’s Oz sequels since the 1950s but trying to measure up to the iconic 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz – whether comparisons are unfair or not – is a daunting task. Its Return to Oz (1985) was a flop but after the success of the non-Disney book and musical Wicked, perhaps it was thought another prequel would work. This film, directed by Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man trilogy) and written by Mitchell Kapner (The Whole Nine Yards) and David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) is obviously intended to have enough familiarity to appeal to Oz fans but also to work on its own. It’s only a middling success at the latter.

It begins in sepia on a small screen, one of several obvious nods to the old movie. In 1905, Oscar ”Oz” Diggs (a miscast James Franco, too smarmy and contemporary) is an unethical, womanising conjuror with a travelling circus. While escaping in his balloon after one angry encounter, he’s swept up by a tornado and blown to the Land of Oz – and colour and widescreen.

He finds himself acclaimed as the prophesied wizard who will take the throne – and the riches – of the Emerald City. That part sounds nifty, but there’s a catch: he also has to save Oz from oppression.

Ascertaining just who might be the source of that is another challenge: is it Theodora (Mila Kunis), the first person he met on arrival? Her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz)? Or could it be Glinda (Michelle Williams)?

The answer is fairly obvious for anyone with even a passing knowledge of Oz lore, especially since one of the actresses was previously seen as a girl in Kansas for whom Oscar had feelings. This ”doubling” is another throwback to the 1939 film with a couple of other characters also involved – Zach Braff plays Oscar’s Kansas assistant and voices a winged monkey and Joey King is a crippled Kansas girl as well as the voice of a china doll whom Oscar mends as part of his journey to become a good man.

The film is long – over two hours – and lags a bit at times. It’s certainly lavishly produced with plenty to catch the eye. But it lacks the serendipitous magic that the 1939 film, despite its flaws, has in abundance. There’s no emotional resonance here, just a couple of hours’ diversion.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.