March 7, 2013

Movie Preview: No place like Oz

And Disney, with ‘The Great and Powerful,’ is betting big bucks that audiences are ready to return to that magical place.

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK McClatchy Newspapers

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Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) travel the yellow brick road on their way to the Emerald City.

Disney photos

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Michelle Williams as Glinda, the Good Witch.

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"OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL," starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff. Directed by Sam Raimi. Rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language. Running time: 2:10

Lyman Frank Baum took the long way to writing "The Wizard of Oz." Before he devised his tale of scarecrows and tin men, he worked, in no particular order, as an actor, a door-to-door-salesman, a choral singer, a newspaper editor and a convenience-store operator. That last one, in a drought-smacked part of South Dakota, served as the inspiration for Dorothy's Kansas.

"Oz: The Great and Powerful" comes from a less dilettantish place: a producer meeting. 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 success of Roth and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" in 2010 further convinced Disney that there was room for an effects-era version of a classic. "Oz" -- fittingly -- was greenlit.

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.

"Like the Wizard, we wanted the Glinda character to struggle," said Williams, who read most of Baum's books before shooting, transcribing notes and thoughts in a "Glinda notebook." "There's no discovery if there's no struggle," she added of her character, a heroine to the misfits of Oz.

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 go a different route than he did on those movies and 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 piece de resistance opening, which uses a black-and-white palette and a smaller aspect ratio to heighten the old-timey vibe.

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Additional Photos

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Oscar Diggs’ (James Franco) hot air balloon sails over the landscape of the Land of Oz.



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