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March 8, 2013

Disney bets audiences are ready to return

Barely a mile from where James Franco, the wizard in Disney’s new “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” was recently giving interviews sat a billboard touting a middle-school stage production.

“‘The Wizard of Oz’ is coming!” it proclaimed, an endearing promotion that the master shyster himself might appreciate. Down the street, some of Hollywood’s top actors were talking up their $200 million plus production of “Oz,” but inside these halls pre-adolescent cowardly lions and scarecrows were dutifully rehearsing their numbers.

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 on Friday, ready or not, “Oz” will be roused from a story within to a swirl all around.

Bigger and slicker than anything Judy Garland might have dreamed of, “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.)

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