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    L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz-inspired novels. The classic 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz, was only the tip of the iceberg. Director Sam Rami (Spider-Man trilogy) and an assemblage of wonderful cinema wizards went back to the beginning and the result is the reportedly $200-million 3D-fantastical adventure Oz: The Great and Powerful (Disney/Roth Films), a prequel exploring the backstory of how the Wizard became the Wizard. Leading the production team is award-winning producer and former studio chief Joe Roth.

    The film, which opens today, boasts a stellar cast that includes Academy Award nominee James Franco (Oscar Diggs, the predestined Wizard); Golden Globe  nominee Mila Kunis (a jilted romance who gets her revenge as witch Theodora), Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz (Theodora's older sister and the evil Emerald City witch Evanora), and three-time Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams (Glinda, the good witch).


    Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Zach Braff (Oscar's assistant Frank, a salute to Baum, back in Kansas). He quite overshadowed by the CGI character he voices in Oz, Finley, the winged monkey, a sort of extension of Oscar's conscience who guides him in his journey to become great and powerful. Finley's not the only scene stealer. There's teenager Joey King voicing the fragile porcelain animated China Girl; and little person Tony Cox as munchkin Hnuck.

    "To be engaging," states director Sam Rami, "and be something fresh, we went back to the beginnings and researched
    Baum's adventures and multitude of characters. Once we chose our direction, we brought our chosen characters into one concise story. It's how the Wizard came to be. How he evolves from a smalltime carnival magician to how he uses his magic to save the fantasia world he'll reign over."


    Franco saw Oscar and the Wizard as flawed. "He starts off a bit rakish. He's part

    goofball, fumbler, con man, womanizer, and vaudeville performer. When he ends up in Oz, all of the issues he wrestled with in the real world are made more extreme. My goal was to make his transition from magician to hero wizard uplifting."


    To learn his magic illusions, Franco studied for two weeks with Las Vegas premier magician Lance Burton.

    Franco appears to be having a good time, but he rarely seems to be acting. One might wonder how the part would have been played had Johnny Depp accepted the role when approached.


    It might be surprising to find such celebrated actresses as Weisz and Williams in a Disney fantasy. Williams is, as she should be, all blonde beauty and sweetness.  Weisz says, "I was thrilled I got to be the bad girl. Evanora is never named by Baum, so I had a lot of leeway. I played her as wicked as they come." Weisz succeeds not only being bad but also evil and has a blast eating every piece of scenery that's not nailed down.

    Kunis, as the stylish, innocent, and good witch Theodora is the first to encounter Oscar as his balloon crash lands in Oz. She believes he is the prophesied wizard that will save Oz from the wrath of Glinda. Oscar's smitten head-over-heels, woos and romances her, then breaks her heart by deserting her. Hell hath no fury like a witch scorned, and Theodora transforms from sweet to dastardly.


    She proved to be a game trouper when it came to her flying sequences, which

    she chose to do instead of using a stunt double.  No matter how fast Kunis was "flown" in her cable rigging, she asked to go faster.


    Production on Oz... took place over six months starting in July at Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac, which once housed GM's business campus and truck design plant. Seven soundstages were required for the 30 massive sets.

    "The world of Baum's 14-ook Oz series has different lands, seas, tropical locales, and impassable deserts," explains Raimi, "so it's no surprise the film was done on a tremendous scale. However, since Baum didn't never fully realize some of Oz's unique denizens, including the Wizard, a lot of imagination had to be used.


    "It was my first time shooting digital 3-D," he continues, "and I liked it because it takes audiences deeper into Baum's fantastical world with a great sense of dimensionality. In the 18-minute prelude in 1905 Kansas, I shot black and white, using the old flat screen ratio and mono sound of movies in the 40s into the late 50s. The 3-D is especially effective inside the swirling tornado. As Oscar lands in Oz, I wanted to present a powerful experience for audience. The screen opens wide with 7.1 Dolby sound."

    The list of visual and creative credits is several minutes long on the end crawl. Rami's band of wizards included hundreds of CGI artists, award-winning cinematographer Peter Deming, two-time Oscar winning production designer Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland, Avatar), Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski,  Oscar-winning special effects designer Scott Stokdyk (Spider-Man trilogy), and costume designers Gary Jones (Spider-Man 2) and Michael Kutsche (Thor, Alice in Wonderland).  The outstanding make-up artists are Greg Nicotero and Oscar-winner Howard Berger (The Chronicles of Narnia series). For the film score, Raimi reunited with four-time Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman, after their falling out during Spider-Man 2.


    Baum's novels are now in public domain. However, because Warner Bros. owns the rights to iconic elements of the M-G-M classic, The Wizard of Oz, including use of the ruby slippers [worn by Judy Garland] and the depiction of the Yellow Brick Road. Rami wasn't able to use them, nor any character likenesses - for instance, any close depiction of the green Wicked Witch of the West, so memorably played by the late Margaret Hamilton. Instead of Glinda having an army of menacing flying monkeys, there's an army of ferocious flying baboons. Subtle changes had to be made to that famous road, too. 

    Of course, there're always loopholes and the film jumps through quite a few. There's some heavy borrowing from The Wizard of Oz, which, in the scope of things, was hardly unavoidable. In a memorable reminder of the original film, this Oz opens with the B&W prologue; then as Oscar flies into Oz on his stolen hot air Baum Brothers Circus balloon, color explodes everywhere.

    After the prelude, the first 15 minutes of the much too long two hour and 10 minute film are a stunning blast of color and captivating images and vistas. A majority the CGI works, though you never suspect it's anything but CGI.




    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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