LOS ANGELES — Somewhere over the rainbow, Judy Garland may well be smiling at Disney's 3-D adventure, “Oz the Great and Powerful,” an original story built from L. Frank Baum's whimsical books.
The Sam Raimi-directed prequel explores the backstory of the much-loved wizard, years before Dorothy and her little dog, Toto, traveled down the yellow brick road.
In this film, James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a magician with questionable ethics who is unexpectedly whirled away by a Kansas tornado to the enchanted Land of Oz. He thinks he's hit the jackpot until he meets three beautiful witches: Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams).
The witches hope he is the answer to the land's prophecy: that a wizard will someday come and restore order. Drawn into the serious issues facing Oz and its people, Oscar slowly evolves not only into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz but into a spectacular human being as well.
“This is a story of how the wizard came to be the wizard,” Raimi said during a press day for “Oz the Great and Powerful” in Los Angeles. “Of how a small-time carnival magician — a faker, a charlatan — came to a fantastic world and was just the thing that they needed to save the day. It's the tale of how an average man who was selfish became a great wizard who is selfless.”
Franco said he enjoyed taking on the role of Diggs, having read all 14 of Baum's books during grade school.
“The character was written in a certain way: part goofball, part con man, part seducer, part vaudeville guy, all of which appealed to me,” Franco said. “In some ways, he touches on many aspects of Americana, while being a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. A goofball and a dashing kind of guy, but a guy maybe not equipped in traditional ways to be a hero. He has unconventional ways of tackling his problems and fumbling through them.”
Another fun perk from playing a magician: Franco got to study tricks with renowned Las Vegas magician Lance Burton.
“It was pretty fun, and I could accomplish the tricks!” Franco said. “I learned dove tricks and fire tricks as well as pulling things out of hats and making things levitate.
“I learned quite a few pretty cool tricks that if I took them to parties, I probably would get a lot of attention. But I need a lot of help from Lance to pull them off. And he doesn't travel around with me, so it's just one of the skills that I've learned along the way, like sword fighting and flying a plane, that I just don't use so much after the movie.”
Williams, who was nominated for an Oscar for 2011's “My Week With Marilyn,” has two roles in the film.
“In the opening of the film, I play a Kansas farm girl named Annie, Oscar's girlfriend, and then Glinda, the Good Witch,” she said. “She's the younger version of the Glinda that we all know from the books. I think of my Glinda as a witch at the beginning of developing those powers.”
Williams said she hopes “that audiences are transported by this magical journey into another realm where anything is possible, where the best is possible, and the best in human nature is really celebrated. I wanted to make a movie that my daughter could see, and I was really excited to be part of something that had an overall good message, one that wasn't tainted with sarcasm. It's a movie that you can take your whole family to see.”
While Williams acknowledged that the best part about playing a witch was “making little girls smile when you walk by!” her co-star and nemesis in the film, Weisz, really loved flying.
Weisz, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in “The Deep Blue Sea,” said she thoroughly enjoyed being evil.
“What really appealed to me about playing Evanora was that I got to be a bad girl. She has a lot of fun being bad,” Weisz said. “I loved the script. I thought it was a great imagining of the origin story of the wizard and the witches.”
Kunis said doing a big-budget fantasy was entirely new and challenging.
“I mean, it was Sam Raimi first and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful' in the same sentence. It wasn't so much intriguing as it was frightening to me, and that's the truth. What I think intrigued me about it was the unknown. I've never done anything remotely close to this. In saying that, you have to challenge yourself, and I felt safe in the challenge, because I was surrounded by people whom I respected so much — Sam first and foremost.”
Raimi said, “I saw Mila Kunis in ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,' and she was very sweet. She's adorable and really funny with a great sense of humor. I knew when I saw that picture that she was a great actress who could play the innocent side of Theodora.
“When I saw the brilliant movie ‘Black Swan,' I also saw the darker side of her, a streak of ‘witchiness' that represented the other side of what I needed for the portrayal of Theodora. So, between those two performances, she showed me that she had everything that she needed for this part.”