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A great and powerful guide to Oz

Prequel to iconic film goes behind the curtain to tell wizard's back story

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Pasadena -- The 1939 fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz was not a Disney movie.

But the influential musical -- a touchstone kids movies for decades to come -- was a property the visionary studio chief Walt Disney always wanted for his own.

After wrapping production on the 3D Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi learned the extent of Walt's Oz dreams when he was given a preview of a DVD documentary detailing Disney's relationship with the stories created by L. Frank Baum.

"It showed how Walt was trying to get the rights to the Oz books and how he was gonna get his army of Mouseketeers together to each play a part," Raimi says at a press conference in a Pasadena hotel. "That part I didn't think was gonna work very well, actually."

But the movie Raimi made ultimately dovetailed with Disney's vision, Raimi feels.

"It was a passion and dream of his, and I thought that was very touching because all I wanted to do was making the ultimate Walt Disney picture.

"It could be for families. It could be uplifting," he says. "There's no violence in the picture, so I think he would like that. (There's) some classic Disney princesses and witches in the picture. I think he would like that. And it's got those Disney bluebirds and cuddly creatures like the (flying) monkeys."

While Oz the Great and Powerful borrows characters, ideas and a narrative structure from the movie The Wizard of Oz, it actually proceeds without a Baum story at its core.

Conceived as a movie prequel, it strives to answer questions posed by The Wizard of Oz: Who was the wizard? How did he get to Oz? And how did he prevail in the face of all that wicked magic flying around the Emerald City?

Here then is a rough guide to Oz as interpreted in 2013.

 

The Wizard Behind the Wizard

Sam Raimi actually shares a few characteristics with the Wizard of Oz. Early in the Michigan filmmaker's career, he created a lot of thundering, shudder-inducing celluloid with his early film output, including his landmark 1981 horror thriller The Evil Dead. (A remake is heading to theatres April 5.)

But belying the ferocity of his early films, Raimi himself is a charming and funny guy.

"I love Sam," says Oz's onscreen wizard James Franco. "I've known Sam for over 10 years because we did the Spider-Man trilogy together. And he is one of the most fun directors to work with and that is no small thing. A director on a film really sets the tone of just how people go about things."

 

The Wizard Behind the Wizard Behind the Wizard

Franco would seem to be an oddball choice to play the bombastic Oz in his prime.

But then, Franco offers a different take than the blustering fraud played by Frank Morgan in the original movie. Befitting his carnival background, Franco's Oz (real name: Oscar Diggs) is a magician and a con man.

"I just loved that the character was comedic, that he could go into this world and bounce off it, rather than be pulled into it smoothly," Franco says.

As far as the magician aspect, Franco learned tradecraft from seasoned Las Vegas magician Lance Burton.

"I got private lessons," Franco says. "It was pretty fun. I got to learn quite a few pretty cool tricks that if I took them to parties, I probably would get a lot of attention.

"But, I need a lot of help from Lance to pull them off and he doesn't travel around with me."

 

The Witches Three

As in The Wizard of Oz, there are three witches (although one of them is seen only as a pair of shrivelling legs after a house falls on her). Bringing those characters into the 21st century:

Mila Kunis as Theodora

Kunis has the most impressive character arc in the film, starting out as an innocent young woman who makes the mistake of falling in love with Franco's capricious ladies man.

"I got very nervous about playing such an iconic character ... or at least playing a character that had such an iconic end result," she says. "I didn't want to ruin it and I didn't want to recreate it and I didn't want to reinterpret it.

"So in order for me to wrap my head around it, I had to make sense of her origin," Kunis says.

"Here's a girl who's incredibly naive and very young and doesn't believe she's almost worthy of love, has never really truly experienced love. (She) meets James's character, falls madly in love with him, very quickly, and then gets her heart broken, and probably doesn't have the emotional tools of dealing with heartache.

"I honestly viewed her as just a normal girl who gets her heart broken who just so happens to be a witch that can fly."

As far as emulating the witch of the original movie, Kunis was adamant about not wanting to go there.

"There was no way of me ever doing it justice," she says. "So this is the 21st-century version of that, I guess. What (original wicked witch Margaret Hamilton) did will be forever be in my mind, the greatest witch of all time. It's like a love letter to her, I guess, in a way."

Michelle Williams as Glinda

Williams is an actress who came to the big-budget blockbuster by way of smaller indie films such as Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine.

"I haven't made a movie this big before, and I was worried about whether I would fit or feel comfortable," she says. "Sam made this environment where you felt welcome, and so were your ideas, and he really listened to them and really took them on."

One example: Williams felt the glamorous good witch Glinda needed to lose the character's trademark frilly frock when she resolves to fight the evil witch menacing all of Oz.

"It came very clear to me that Glinda needed to change her dress to go into battle and that she needed something that she could move more freely in and that she needed something that looked like armour," Williams says.

"This was after we had already shot something of me in my other dress doing something in battle.

"And I came to Sam, and I was like, 'It's really important to me and I know what it should look like and is there any way, please?" And Sam said, 'If it means that much to you, then it means that much to me.' And we got to reshoot something once I had this new dress."

Rachel Weisz as Evanora

Weisz (The Bourne Legacy) at least did not have to worry about replicating any iconic characters from the original film. She was thus free to operate without any pre-ordained notions of what the character would be like.

That suited the British actress, who harbours warm feelings about the original Wizard of Oz.

"It was the first film I remember seeing, so it's my earliest film memory," she says. "I remember my mom taking me to the cinema. I remember being about five. I remember being really traumatized by the wicked witches. They were very, very scary.

"So I guess it has that kind of power."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

 

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OPENS FRIDAY, MARCH 8.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2013 C9

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