Though actually set closer to the turn of the (last) century, the classic-movie-nerd opening of “Oz the Great and Powerful” recreates the look of 1939: the box-shaped frame, the artificial sets, the mannered acting. It’s the era of not the first “Wizard of Oz” film — several were made prior, including a 1925 feature with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man — but the most beloved, and director Sam Raimi makes sure to get everything right. His only mistake is James Franco, cast as the 30-something Oscar Diggs, aka the actual Wizard of Oz — because when you think of the 1930s, you obviously think of mumbling stoners.
Perhaps realizing this is a classier gig than hosting the Oscars, the amusingly miscast Franco tries hard. Robert Downey Jr. was originally slated to lead this, Disney’s second attempt to piggyback off a mega-classic. (The 1985 film “Return to Oz” tanked, on account of it being as awesomely scary and demented as L. Frank Baum’s books.) But Downey Jr. would have only done Downey Jr., whereas Franco lends an unpolished, excitable and unique presence to a script that’s overly safe and which has clearly been exec-noted to death.
The plot uses little directly from Baum’s 14 “Oz” books, hitting us with yet another origin story: Franco’s Diggs is a magician/conman whisked away by a twister (original!) to the magical land of loud colors and anthropomorphized animals. There, he befriends a flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) and a porcelain china doll (Joey King), while running afoul of the younger (and hotter) versions of the three witches: nice Glinda (Michelle Williams), drolly evil Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and her sister, the gullible and sweet Theodora (Mila Kunis).
Raimi dutifully plods through the thin plot while encouraging his actors and effects team to spice things up. Weisz is reliably arch, and the director of three “Evil Dead” movies uses the third dimension to have beasts and pointy objects leaping in our faces. His most lasting effect on this product is more reserved and loving: His is a movie about the relationship between science and magic, producing the most trenchant mainstream picture on the subject since Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” And though the overall effect is lightly likable, at least it’s not cluttered, narratively or visually, like another Joe Roth production with a Danny Elfman score: Tim Burton’s grotesque violation of “Alice in Wonderland.” (3 out of 5 Globes)