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March 8, 2013

Disney bets audiences are ready to return

(Continued)

“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 (seeking meaning in the role of Glinda the Good Witch, Michelle Williams said, she ad-libbed a quote from Che Guevara). 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.

New Oz tales inevitably evoke strong feelings — witness the early reception to Disney’s 1985 fantasy sequel “Return to Oz,” or the entirety of the reception to 1978’s critically panned film adaptation of the Broadway show “The Wiz.” To tinker with “Oz” is to mess not just with a movie 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 “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.

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