Disney bets 'Oz' will lure you back

Film is not a remake of classic, but a tale of how wizard came to be
2013-03-07T00:00:00Z 2013-03-31T13:59:12Z Disney bets 'Oz' will lure you backSteven Zeitchik Los Angeles Times Arizona Daily Star
March 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

LOS ANGELES - Barely a mile from where James Franco, the wizard in Disney's new "Oz the Great and Powerful," was recently giving interviews sat a billboard touting a middle-school stage production. "'The Wizard of Oz' is coming!" it proclaimed, an endearing promotion that the master shyster himself might appreciate. Down the street, some of Hollywood's top actors were talking up their $200 million-plus production of "Oz," but inside these halls pre-adolescent cowardly lions and scarecrows were dutifully rehearsing their numbers.

For untold millions, "The Wizard of Oz" - the 1939 MGM musical, but also the 14 Oz-themed L. Frank Baum books that preceded it - has always been there, as much universal truth as pop entertainment. Its central hook, of a Technicolor world that lies just beyond childhood, has been harbored by kids the world over, just as its no-place-like-home message has often dawned on filmgoers later in adulthood.

And beginning on Friday, ready or not, "Oz" will be roused from a story within to a swirl all around.

Bigger and slicker than anything Judy Garland might have dreamed of, "Oz the Great and Powerful" boasts a number of prominent names: "Spider-Man" director Sam Raimi, "Alice in Wonderland" producer Joe Roth, Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire (he co-wrote the script), enough well-known actors to fill a Dark Forest.

Taking Baum's thinly sketched references to a carnival huckster named Oscar Diggs, they fill in the outlines with a story of a man, selfish but not indecent, who in 1905 is plucked by a tornado from his dreary con-man life in Kansas to a place of whimsy and saturated color, where he is improbably called on to save a people. It is, as Roth and Raimi are keen to emphasize, a prequel to rather than a remake of the 1939 movie. (Rights to that are owned by Warner Bros.; Baum's work is in the public domain.)

"We are trying to capture the magic of Baum's books using a 21st-century film language," Roth said. "There is nothing that came before that really tells us 'Who is this guy and how did he get here?'"

Still, this "Oz" will be divisive. The more generous will view it as an important entry in the Oz canon, a visually stunning parable about the nature of faith and the politics of grass-roots revolution (seeking meaning in the role of Glinda the Good Witch, Michelle Williams said, she ad-libbed a quote from Che Guevara). The more skeptical will see a giant media conglomerate spending liberally on a familiar tale of becoming, and trying to recoup its investment with a famous title and premium 3-D ticket prices.

New Oz tales inevitably evoke strong feelings - witness the early reception to Disney's 1985 fantasy sequel "Return to Oz," or the entirety of the reception to 1978's critically panned film adaptation of the Broadway show "The Wiz." To tinker with "Oz" is to mess not just with a movie but with a feeling.

Yet it would be too simple to say there's no cultural room for another story about the Land of Oz. Many very good new stories are the result of someone rediscovering a great old place. And there are few greater old places than Baum's Oz.

In 2009, "The Whole Nine Yards" screenwriter Mitchell Kapner pitched Roth and his colleagues his long-held idea for an origin story about the wizard. The producer bit.

Of course, moving a mega-budget film forward in Hollywood is about as easy as getting a munchkin to dunk a basketball. Sam Mendes was interested in directing, but was sidelined by his commitment to "Skyfall." Sam Raimi, the genre-fan favorite who is also behind cult hits "Evil Dead" and "Darkman," was eventually hired, as was Lindsey-Abaire, to streamline the script and add a layer of character. At that point Robert Downey Jr. agreed to play the wizard, though as the months in development wore on, the actor's desire for silver-tongued improvisation clashed with Raimi's need for meticulous preparation. "It was clear through all these meetings that this wasn't going to work," Roth said.

After a flirtation with Johnny Depp, producers brought on Franco, along with Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora, Mila Kunis as the good-gone-bad witch Theodora and Williams as all-around goodie Glinda. Franco said he liked the idea of taking a familiar world but "using a different kind of protagonist." Asked whether the familiarity of the Oz setting gave him any pause, he said, "There's so much of Baum's world that hadn't been touched. To let that lie dormant because people like the musical is silly."

The finished film has Diggs on the run from the wicked witches - Weisz evils things up using her native British accent, noting in an interview she thought about slipping in an American one to show her character was posing - and meeting his own band of misfits along the way. (They include a Zach Braff-voiced monkey who becomes his sidekick and a miniature porcelain character named China Girl, fleshed out from a Baum allusion.)

Ultimately, Diggs must call upon his skills as a magician to create a sleight of hand to defeat the witches. In a clever inversion, the wizard is now the one who must muster courage, find a heart and locate his brains, with Glinda helping him along the way.

Filmgoers will be quick to note "Oz's" look. Production designer Robert Stromberg, no stranger to big effects from movies like "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland," wanted to avoid green screens when possible. He and Raimi had seven soundstages, some the size of football fields, built across metro-area Detroit, the un-Oz-like place where the movie was shot, for tax-incentive purposes. The results can be seen in the film - especially in its pièce de résistance opening, which uses a black-and-white palette and a smaller aspect ratio to heighten the old-timey vibe.

But will "Great and Powerful" feel like the "The Wizard of Oz"?"

It's not a simple question.

For starters, there is no Dorothy, and very few songs. Unlike much of what's come before, there is also comedy. Franco plays his part with an arched eyebrow, tossing in under-his-breath references whose effect is heightened by Raimi's close-ups.

This "Oz" also contains a yellow-brick road and an Emerald City, but they come courtesy of some non-Ozian influences (Stromberg said he looked at "Metropolis") and are also unmistakably of a piece with current-day Disney confections. The monkeys fly at your head, the butterflies flap their colorful wings in front of your eyes, the waterfalls gush vertiginously.

"I like to push things, and I know I sometimes get criticized for that," Stromberg said. "But I want to be satisfied that whoever's buying a ticket goes on a visual journey."

This could provoke purists, who will say any "Oz" that puts such a premium on design ignores the story's soul. But Stromberg said skeptics should examine the history.

"If you really wanted to analyze the original 'Oz,' it's big backing painted with gumdrop hills. There's a really fabricated feel to everything. My question is 'Why is this any different?'"

Review

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