LOS ANGELES » Near the middle of "Oz the Great and Powerful," James Franco, who plays the title character, surveys his bewildering surroundings and mutters "Are you kidding me?"
On Friday, when this wizard and his hot air balloon land in theaters, Disney hopes ticket buyers won’t think the same thing.
No movie studio would have the nerve to remake "The Wizard of Oz," the beloved 1939 musical ranked by the Library of Congress as the most-watched film in history. But "Oz the Great and Powerful," a Disney-produced prequel, is nearly as intrepid. The company is betting that a new twist on a story moviegoers already love will result in a hit on par with "Alice in Wonderland," which took in more than $1 billion in 2010.
It’s a breathtaking gamble. "Oz," at turns goofy and dark (and not a musical), cost about $325 million to make and market, according to people who worked on the movie who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with Disney. Franco has never anchored a mainstream movie before. Because of copyright constraints Disney was not able to reproduce certain iconic imagery from the "The Wizard of Oz," which is owned by Warner Bros.
And audiences have already rallied around a "Wizard of Oz" prequel: "Wicked" has been a Broadway hit for nearly 10 years.
Disney’s marketers have not been cowed by the huge shadow cast by the original "Oz" — indeed, their ads for the new film invite comparisons to the classic. But the popularity of the original may ultimately represent the studio’s biggest challenge. Is there room for a new cinematic vision of Oz, as Disney believes? Or will movie audiences (and critics) be reluctant to embrace an Oz that does not look a certain way, have a certain tone and feature a certain set of slippers?
Hollywood is confronting issues like these with greater regularity. Studios, ever-desperate for source material that is both familiar and comfortable to consumers, have leaned more heavily toward sequels and prequels.
But nostalgic properties are tricky. There are liberties you can take and ones you cannot, producers say, and the lines are blurry.
Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of movie production, said in an interview that he was "cautiously optimistic" about the box office prospects for "Oz the Great and Powerful," which was loosely based on the novels of L. Frank Baum.
"Going in, we certainly talked a lot about these iconic books, the iconic movie and the iconic musical," Bailey said. "We felt there was room for a new story. We felt this great land was worthy of exploration and that it could be creatively exciting."
Bailey and Alan F. Horn, Disney’s new studio chairman, are under pressure to deliver a hit. "John Carter," which opened a year ago, forced the company to take a $200 million write-down, one of the largest in movie history. Since "John Carter," releases on the Disney label have included "The Odd Life of Timothy Green," which took in a ho-hum $51.9 million, and "Frankenweenie," a critical success but a box office failure, which sold just $35.3 million in tickets in North America.
Disney is betting that going big is the key to a turnaround — hiring marquee directors and stars with serious acting credentials for pictures with giant budgets. After "Oz" comes "The Lone Ranger," a comedic Western starring Johnny Depp as Tonto. In July 2014 Disney plans to release "Maleficent," starring Angelina Jolie as the evil sorceress from "Sleeping Beauty."
Tackling such well-known material risks stepping on memories, however. Oz itself has proved difficult in that regard over the years. Audiences recoiled from "The Wiz," a 1978 adaptation of the stage musical. The response to "Return to Oz," a 1985 Disney effort that found Dorothy in an asylum, was equally dismal.
For "Oz the Great and Powerful," directed by Sam Raimi, Batman offers one positive point of comparison; that character, which coincidentally first appeared in a 1939 comic book, has been successfully reincarnated at the multiplex for several generations, noted Bob Gazzale, president of the American Film Institute.
The 2005 remake "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a more cautionary example. What seemed like a good idea on paper — Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, with lots of digital imagery — was ultimately a disappointment, with a fey Depp and his computer-generated Oompa Loompas striking moviegoers as a tad creepy.
"Yes, there is definitely room for Disney’s version of Oz, without question," Gazzale said. But upon learning about the absence of Dorothy’s famous footwear (Warner holds the copyright), he grew more tentative. "Wait, hold everything — there are no ruby slippers?" he said. "Disney didn’t tell me that in the trailer."
Gazzale was joking, but his point is a valid one. According to surveys that track advance interest, "Oz" could take in $80 million or more in North America in its first weekend, a huge debut. But movies this expensive need intense audience support; in the Twitter and Facebook age, films can fall off a cliff almost overnight if early attendees don’t like what they see.
Reviews have only started to trickle in, but so far the critical response has been fairly warm. Two actresses who play witches — Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz — have been received with particular enthusiasm. Still, The Hollywood Reporter, which RottenTomatoes.com considers a "top critic," called the movie "sadly unimaginative" and "stillborn from its opening minutes."
Bailey of Disney said "Alice in Wonderland" was a reference point as the studio did a cost-benefit analysis. But he also said Disney tried not to overthink it.
"Creativity by analogy is something that studios do a lot, and sometimes it’s a scary thing," he said. "We just felt this was a good idea." (The "we" in that sentence included Rich Ross, Horn’s predecessor, who put "Oz the Great and Powerful" into production before getting fired as studio chairman last April. If "Oz" does well, Ross will get some of the credit.)
Like most movies of its size, "Oz" had production difficulties. Based on feedback from test audiences, Disney at the relative last minute had Raimi expand the presence of a talking, computer-generated monkey as a comedic buddy for the anti-hero wizard. Robert Downey Jr. and Depp both turned down the central role; Franco has lately become known for explicit art house films.
And Bailey and Horn battled with Raimi over how scary "Oz" could be. Raimi generally wanted more terror and Disney less.
Disney marketers have been trying to pull off a delicate balancing act. They have been using familiar imagery not covered by copyright — the wizard’s hot air balloon, Glinda’s flying bubble — to generate interest. But stirring too much nostalgia might result in disappointed audiences. To that end, Disney has used the slogan, "The land you know, the story you don’t" in some ads.
The goal is to keep the audience reaction from mirroring the movie’s storyline. Franco’s circus magician, a selfish cad, is sucked via tornado to Oz, where the residents mistake him for a wizard who will free them from the wicked witches. But he starts to wither under the expectations. "I’m just not the man you wanted me to be," he says.