D23: Behind the Curtain of ‘Oz: The Great and Powerful’

7821860.jpgAfter Disney’s Tim Burton-directed take on Alice in Wonderland scored the studio a one-billion-dollar-plus-grossing worldwide hit, it was only a matter of time before the studio’s live-action family-film division would offer another revisionist, auteur-centered interpretation of a timeless, beloved fantasy property. So, in March 2013, exactly three years after Alice’s release, the Mouse House and director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man and Evil Dead trilogies) are bringing The Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and Powerful to multiplexes.

Since Oz: The Great and Powerful, which follows the titular wizard’s first, unexpected journey into the yellow-brick-road-paved, magical land, just began production a month ago, Disney didn’t have more than a brief behind-the-scenes featurette to whet fans’ appetites at the studio’s D23 Expo, held this past weekend in Anaheim. But based on concept art unveiled within the making-of reel, it’s clear the studio is adhering to a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” policy. Production designer Robert Stromberg’s (winner of the Art Direction Oscar for Alice in Wonderland, along with Karen O’Hara) sketches of Oz reveal it to be a more emerald-tinted cousin to the trippy, lushly colorful Wonderland of his and Burton’s film, with a few eye-catching surprises (like a large, grass-covered mountain shaped like a rhinoceros) added.

Although Disney won’t have Alice’s star Johnny Depp to lure audiences to Oz: The Great and Powerful, they may have taken a wise gamble in putting James Franco front and center as the Wizard. Franco’s an immensely gifted young actor whose taste in edgy roles (like gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl) and occasional tendency to appear sleepy and—how shall I put this?—perhaps herbally enhanced (most notoriously in his embarrassingly awkward hosting stint opposite the relatively high-energy Anne Hathaway at this year’s Oscars) nevertheless made him an eyebrow-raising choice to anchor a kid-friendly project. But the D23 set footage showed him comfortably at home in his Oz period garb, and in an interview, the actor’s description of this film’s version of the Wizard as “a cad, a lothario, a seducer” put the news of his casting in a whole new light. If Franco can bring the same devilish, flirtatious charm he brought to those early scenes opposite Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn in 127 Hours—which landed the actor his first Oscar nomination—than expect a charismatic star turn in Oz.

Franco will be backed by the formidable female trio of Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis as three Oz-dwelling witches. So that leaves Zach Braff as the Wizard’s comic-relief assistant as the only casting choice that still doesn’t make sense. The trope of the wacky sidekick has become tiresomely old-hat, and it’s hard to imagine the spazzy clowning Braff brought to TV’s Scrubs working in this less goofy context.

Oz: The Great and Powerful opens March 8, 2013.