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, less ceremoniously, 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.
It should be noted that Baum’s original wizard was not called “The Great and Powerful.” He was called “The Great and Terrible,” but that might have been a little too much of a gift to curmudgeonly movie reviewers. The wizard does, however, have some deep flaws and, in Raimi’s conception, tries to overcome them. “This is a story of a man who wanted to be great but didn’t know how,” the director said.
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, and who wants some Hollywood sharpie doing that?
Yet it would be too simple to say there’s no cultural room for another story about the Land of Oz. After all, there is Stephen Schwartz’s “Wicked,” and even the 1939 film wasn’t the first cinematic adaptation of Baum’s book. But mainly it’s because, in genres that include science-fiction and mob films, 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.
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.
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. There are some references to Fleming’s movie — Diggs calls an attacking lion a coward — but they are deployed sparingly. In fact, Kapner’s initial version contained more references, and Disney executives also pushed for more. But Raimi and Roth pushed back, wanting the film to stand on its own. (Williams said Raimi instructed the cast to “stay away from anything that was conspicuously related” to the MGM film.)
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. “There are certain things you have to render to make it feel like Oz,” he said. “But a more mature protagonist allows for a more knowing performance. I didn’t want adults to have to feel like they had to go back to childhood to enjoy this.”
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?’”
Raimi draws a parallel to a story told about MGM’s movie, which was the most expensive the studio had made to that point — to the extent it had to hook up special generators to provide additional power to the back lot. This production, meanwhile, had to receive special ordinances from the city of Detroit to supply sufficient power to its set.
Oz, quite literally, could cause a blackout.
You probably remember the first time you saw “The Wizard of Oz.” You may even recall its catchphrases making their way into your subconscious — the friend who said a girl was like the tin man (“no heart”) or when someone acknowledged that a mushrooming group was becoming a little like Dorothy and her friends. Baum’s creations are a permission slip to be sentimental, made paradoxically more relevant, or at least desirable, in this modern age of irony.
But Baum’s creations also allow for other versions of Oz.
As the movie opens — with strong tracking among most demographics, it’s looking likely “Oz” will be a hit — Amazon’s publishing division is releasing the well-timed “Oz Reimagined,” in which genre writers like Orson Scott Card and Tad Williams offer their own fictional stories based on Baum elements. There are several other movies in the Hollywood pipeline, including a brooding tale from “A History of Violence” screenwriter Josh Olson that imagines Dorothy’s return to an evil-riddled Oz. Warner Bros. is developing a dark cable series called “Red Brick Road” that also picks up after the events of “The Wizard of Oz” novel.
Meanwhile, this week the L.A. art series “Creature Features” is opening an exhibit called “Visions of Oz,” in which more than a dozen artists put their own spin on the Emerald City. There are classic N.C. Wyeth-esque works, but also darker fare, such as a painting of violent images popping out of Dorothy’s head.
“It’s amazing that young people see Oz differently than people in their 40s and 50s, who understand it as something more pure,” said the curator, Taylor White.
Baum’s work has that malleability. “Oz Reimagined” co-editor Douglas Cohen believes that Oz has endured because it contains something resonant for each era: an Emerald City that spoke to the immigration-heavy early 1900s, a Technicolor world that appealed to a 1930s America looking to leave the Depression behind and perhaps in the failed acquisitiveness of Dorothy and her friends, even a message about the illusions of modern consumerism. “In a way it’s less that Oz changes with the times as it is us changing with Oz,” he said.
Or as “Wicked” author Gregory Maguire writes, “Oz is nonsense; Oz is musical; Oz is satire; Oz is fantasy … Oz is obvious; Oz is secret.”
All of that leads to some people wanting a piece of Oz — also literally. Victor Fleming’s Bel-Air estate is currently up for sale with a tag of $29.5 million. In November, an unidentified buyer paid nearly half a million dollars at auction for the blue gingham dress Garland wore.
It’s a telling fact, if one Disney would prefer to ignore, that most Oz movies don’t find their audience right away; there’s something to the property that makes the coming back enjoyable.
And if a return yields new insight, all the better, say those behind this film. “We want you to learn something about a classic we didn’t understand before,” Raimi said. “This is a character we know and a story we don’t know.” It’s a complexity befitting “The Wizard of Oz.”