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Emerald City beckons in the distance in "Oz: The Great and Powerful."

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 today, ready or not, "Oz" will be roused from a story within to a swirl all around.


Rated: PG

* 1/2

Opens today

Bigger and slicker than anything Judy Garland might have dreamed of, the $200 million "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. 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.

To tinker with "Oz" is to mess not just with the 1939 movie classic 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 Broadway smash "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.

Getting a megabudget film made 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 David 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.

After a flirtation with Johnny Depp, producers brought on James Franco, along with Rachel Weisz as the evil witch Evanora, Mila Kunis as the good-gone-bad witch Theodora and Michelle 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 greenlighted.

The finished film has Diggs on the run from the wicked witches 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 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.

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 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 Victor Fleming’s classic original movie — Diggs calls an attacking lion a coward — but they are deployed sparingly. 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?’"

–Steven Zeitchik / Los Angeles Times

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