Disney revisits Oz to tell new magical tale
Nearly 75 years after "The Wizard of Oz," Disney has crafted a new story about the magical kingdom, by going back to its creator -- in what is tipped to be a blockbuster movie opening this weekend.
Walt Disney long sought to make a film about Oz, the imaginary land created by American author L. Frank Baum in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" in 1900, after MGM made its own version in 1939.
But the project never got off the ground, and it was Sam Raimi, director of the hit "Spider-Man" and "Evil Dead" trilogies, who has finally brought it to life for Disney's company as "Oz the Great and Powerful."
And it could be as big a hit as the first film: box office tracker Exhibitor Relations estimates a debut weekend take of $88 million, saying that "if all goes well, it certainly has a shot at the other side of the $100 million rainbow."
The new film is not a remake of Victor Fleming's masterpiece, but more a prequel that recounts events before those told in "The Wizard of Oz," based on Baum's original novel.
"Every filmmaker knows when you make a book into a movie, the first thing you have to do is kill the book, unfortunately. You've got to recreate it," Raimi told reporters ahead of the film's release.
"But I decided I could be truest to the fans of Baum's great work if I recognized what was great and moving and touching and most effective about those books to me... and put as much of that into this picture as I could."
The film -- in which the character of Dorothy, played in the earlier version by Judy Garland, does not appear -- focuses on Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco), a small-town circus magician transported to Oz by a tornado.
There, he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who see in him a wizard capable of saving the kingdom.
Happy to be showered with power and riches, Diggs plays along with the misperception, until his lies begin to catch up with him.
"His character starts off as a flawed man. He's selfish; he's a bit of a womanizer. He thinks that happiness will come from financial success and fame. It blinds him to the love of the people around him," said Franco, who learned tricks from magician Lance Burton in Las Vegas while preparing for the role.
"One of the reasons to start the character off that way was that it would allow for growth... The movie would not just be a physical journey through a mystical land, but it would also involve an inner journey of the character."
If the film lacks some depth, but not in length, visually it is stunning, thanks to Raimi.
"There were a tremendous amount of new challenges for me. I didn't know anything about 3D, so I had to go to school and learn about 3D," the director said, describing how artists created every blade of grass, flower or insect.
"I had to meet with technicians and study the camera systems and go to effects houses and hear what the different visual effects artists had to say about working with the systems," he added.
The film includes several bravura segments, including the opening scenes in black and white and the switch to color when Oz arrives -- an idea taken from the 1939 movie, watched by generations of children.
The new movie has high expectations riding on it: only 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" ($116 million) and last year's "The Hunger Games" ($152 million) have opened with more than $100 million in the relatively quiet month of March.