Taking on the Oz franchise is not something that is done lightly. With the fierce childhood adoration for L. Frank Baum’s epic series that exists in many viewers hearts, and the absolute appreciation for Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz that exists in the hearts of many more, the magical world waiting somewhere over the rainbow is not a place to be tampered with.

It seems director Sam Raimi understands this. Oz the Great and Powerful, which premiered on Mar. 8 and is currently in theatres, has an all-star cast and crew, with James Franco as Oscar Diggs (the Wizard), Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz as the witches, and composer Danny Elfman behind the soundtrack. The film is clearly well-armed, and Raimi said he has used his resources to the best of his ability. “I wasn’t looking for necessarily the very best actor or actress in the world. I was looking for that actor or actress that had the qualities of the character they’re going to portray,” Raimi said in a Disney-moderated interview composed of questions from university papers across North America. Raimi said his choice for Kunis to play Theodora, a good witch who turns toward darker cauldrons when her heart is broken, stemmed from Kunis’ ability to play both pleasant and evil characters, as he recognised in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Black Swan. Similarily, Raimi said he looked for legitimate qualities in Williams, whose character, Glinda, is all good.

“I needed an actress that had a good soul. So suddenly that ruled about 90 percent of the actresses in Hollywood,” Raimi joked. “When you spend time with Williams, she puts out a very sweet aura. And I consider her to [have] a very good soul. And that’s something that I thought couldn’t be faked by an actor, no matter how fine they were…when the camera gets in close, really close to the face of the actor or actress, the audience knows whether they’re true or not,” he said.

Franco said his role as the Wizard gave him the opportunity to play a “dimensional” character in a new setting. “He’s a bit of a charmer, he’s a conman, he’s a magician, he’s an adventurer, he can be brave and cowardly, he has a tender side, so it’s all kind of wrapped up in one character,” Franco said. “He was written as a comedic character within this fantastical world, and I found that combination to be fairly unusual and I just thought it would be a juxtaposition of two different things—comedy and fantasy—that would result in something entertaining.”

Franco took his preparation for his role seriously. Before his trip to the magical world, Oz is a magician in Kansas. Franco trained with professional magician Lance Burton to learn tricks and make his magical demeanour as realistic as possible. “[Burton] taught me how to make it look like I’m having people levitate and make it look like they’re evapourating in front of everyone’s eyes and then also just how to hold myself on stage,” Franco said.

In addition to character legitimacy, Raimi said he strove to make the Land of Oz as true as possible to Baum’s novels and the famous film. “I drew it all from the great author L. Frank Baum, his vision of Oz that he had written about in 14 some books. And then, I was also inspired by the illustrator, [W. W. Denslow], he was the original illustrator of the L. Frank Baum books. So a lot of inspiration was taken from his drawings. But I was also inspired by the great classic movie, [The] Wizard of Oz, of course, who would not be inspired by that?” Raimi said. Franco, who read the Oz books as a child, said the accuracy of the story and setting was also important to him. “I wanted to be sure that they were being loyal to certain things about Oz that people expect, and then also had a fresh take on it. And they did. They had all the elements you need in order for people to recognize the world of Oz…the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City, and witches, and flying monkeys, and a bunch of strange creatures, and Munchkins. All the things that make up what we imagine Oz to be. And then I saw that their approach to the world, the emissary into the world was not a male version of Dorothy fortunately.”

Raimi said his quest to pursue top quality for the film paid off when he heard Elfman’s soundtrack and the effect it had upon the already established story. “He took the emotions that were in the movie and he elevated them. He took the drama and he deepened it, the thread enhanced it. So he basically made everything better, he was the secret sauce that brings it to the next level. That was the best part for me, to see the movie whole and be made better and be brought together,” Raimi said.

In their efforts to make the film as great and worthy of the title as possible, both Franco and Raimi said that they faced some challenges. “It was a fun shoot. I had fun all the way through. It was a long shoot, so maybe that was the most challenging part of it, just working on something for half a year was quite an undertaking,” Franco said. Raimi said his biggest difficulties came from working with the story. “The most challenging, I think was probably not dissimilar from other filmmakers and their ensemble movies, where there are many characters, and many back stories, and many interconnected relationship tales, and juggling what part of their back story should I include? What part should I cut out? What part should I give the audience? And what part would be most effective if I let the audience use their own imagination to fill in the blanks?”

Whether or not Oz the Great and Powerful is a worthy addition to Baum’s imaginative world is up to you to decide. The film is currently playing at Avalon Cinemas at 6631 North Island Highway, Nanaimo. Showtimes can be found at <www.cineplex.com>.

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