A heartfelt re-imagining of an old favourite harks back to Hollywood's golden era, writes Michele Manelis
When director Sam Raimi started making Oz The Great and Powerful he was inspired by a time when film-making was about adventure, fantasy and wonder - back in 1939, when the first Oz film, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, was made.
"I love the golden era of Hollywood," says Raimi, best known for the Spider-Man trilogy. "The original Wizard of Oz is probably most people's favourite movie. As a child I grew up with it, and it made me cry every time I saw it. It was also the scariest movie I'd ever seen as a kid."
His Oz film bucks the trend of recent adaptations of fairy tales such as Snow White and Hansel & Gretel or Alice in Wonderland, which have all been revamped in a shroud of cynicism and dark humour to appeal to adult sensibilities. Parents, you need not fear having to explain any inappropriate behaviour to the kids with this version of Oz.
And the modern-day wicked witches, played by actresses Rachel Weisz (as Evanora) and Mila Kunis (as Theodora), are unlikely to scare the living daylights out of kids, like Margaret Hamilton does as the Wicked Witch of the West in the original.
One parent in particular who appreciates Raimi's take on Oz is actress Michelle Williams, who stars as Glinda the Good Witch. The three-time Oscar-nominated actress and mother of 7-year-old Matilda (whose father is the late Heath Ledger), says she loves the fact the humour in the film isn't mean or sarcastic.
"You can bring your whole family without cringing when something unseemly happens," she says.
Inspired by L. Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Oz The Great and Powerful is the prequel to the The Wizard of Oz. It is told from the point of view of the Wizard, played by James Franco.
"The story takes place 25 years before Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow or the Tin Man were there," explains Raimi. "This is the story of how the Wizard got to the Land of Oz and how he becomes the Wizard. He starts out as a small-time magician and becomes the great man he always dreamed he could be."
Raimi worked with Franco for 12 years during the Spider-Man films, in which Franco played villain Harry Osborn. So he knows the actor well, and it's presumably why he feels he can speak candidly about the 34-year-old star.
"When I first met him he was a 21-year-old, selfish, full-of-himself young actor. At that time he had some less admirable qualities, but as the years went on I saw James grow up. I saw a generosity he had with the other actors and a goodness in him; I saw his soul mature. He became a much sweeter, kinder, gentler person as he reached his late 20s. I've seen him outgrow his darker qualities, but I know they exist in him. His history was everything I needed for this character to take this journey."
Franco, who as well as being an actor is a writer, director, producer and author of a book of short stories, agrees with Raimi's summation of him.
"Yeah, when I was younger I dropped out of UCLA and worked at McDonald's and went to acting class, dreaming about becoming a great actor, and about greatness.
"[But] now I can say I've achieved everything I wanted; I've worked with my favourite directors, I've done projects I'm proud of and if I'm honest with myself, I've been very fortunate. Nowadays, I don't spend as much time on pursuits that involve only myself," he says with a smile.
These days, Franco is back at UCLA teaching film production. "It takes me out of myself and I get to provide students with opportunities they've only dreamed about. It's what makes me happy and is a great gift for me," he says.
His lofty acting aspirations in his younger days are another quality he has in common with his Oz character, Oscar Diggs. The lowly circus magician has dreams of greatness and when he is plunged into the Land of Oz he undergoes his transformation into the Wizard of Oz.
When casting the witches, Raimi also went for actresses who had similar personal qualities to their characters. Not that Weisz is wicked and Kunis is a soft touch in real life. But, "with Rachel Weisz, she's a witch who wants power. I believe Rachel has that kind of power and she has that command," he says. "With Mila Kunis, who plays her sister, Theodora, I needed someone you could believe was innocent and who could have been seduced by the wizard and left heartbroken. I thought Mila had that quality in spades," he says. "And as for Michelle Williams, well, we had to believe that as the good witch she was a truly good soul. The audience is smart and you can't fake that kind of thing. So, that ruled out most of the actresses in Hollywood," he laughs.
Raimi's fantasy world was made for a reported US$200 million ($240 million). The production employed 700 CGI artists to bring it to life and can be seen in traditional 2D, as well 3D formats.
This was Raimi's first foray into digital 3D but being the old-school-loving director that he is, he has his own personal visual taste. "I think we've lost a lot with digital. I still miss Technicolor and I don't think we've recreated the beauty of that in our modern systems. Even if we can come up with an affordable system that could recreate what they did in 1939, I think it would be a giant step forward."
And unlike many directors who see 3D as revolutionary mainstay on the film front, Raimi's adamant there's not a future for the format unless the powers that be can get rid of the glasses. "They're cumbersome and annoying. Who wants to wear those things? They need to figure out how to put 3D on the flat screen because there are headache-inducing qualities that I personally experience. It makes your brain work too hard to combine two images into one."
Regardless of how you see Oz The Great and Powerful, Raimi's main aim was to deliver a story from the heart. "I've always loved the classic Disney pictures and this was an opportunity for me to make my own Disney movie. I hope Walt Disney would be proud."
What: Oz The Great and Powerful
Who: Director Sam Raimi and actor James Franco as Oscar Diggs/The Wizard of Oz
Also starring: Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch, Rachel Weisz as Evanora, Mila Kunis as Theodora and Zach Braff as the voice of Finley the Flying Monkey/Frank, who is Oscar's circus assistant
In cinemas: March 7