The film opens as one would expect with a drab grayscale landscape of Kansas framed in the old 4X3 format. Then with the help of a tornado, you guessed it, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is hurled out of Kansas and to the fantastical and colorful land of Oz in a full cinemascope format.
Diggs is a small time circus magician with questionable ethics at the beginning of the film and is forced through strange experiences to consider that the only thing better than being a great man is being a good man. His journey gives him ample opportunities to display goodness or continue being self-centered.
Not only is this film about how the great and powerful Oz came into being, but it is also the birth of three witches: Glinda the good witch; and, the wicked witches of the East and West. Glinda was played by Michelle Williams who says, “This incarnation of who Glinda was captivated me,” referring to the fact that Glinda wasn’t old fashion as some might suppose.
Williams and Rachel Weisz, who played Evanora, had to learn how to fly on wires, which wasn’t always easy. Williams says, “Flying on wires is fun, but falling is never fun, even if you’re attached to a wire.” The actors had to interact with other types of effects including a “puppet-cam”.
Zach Braff played a new character, Finley, the flying monkey. During the shoot, Braff was placed in a recording booth outside of the soundstage to act live via a monitor with the actors. The normal process requires a green tennis ball, representing the CG character’s eyes, to be placed on a stick so actors know where to look when they interact on set. The stick and ball are then replaced digitally with the CG character. But, using a puppet-cam changed the normal process. Braff’s face was videotaped and put on a small monitor on the stick, which allowed the actors to play off of his wisecracking expressions.
Director Sam Raimi, took additional steps to help the actors interact more realistically with their Oz environment. Rather than creating the entire location in the world of CG, like in Alice in Wonderland, Raimi worked with production Designer Robert Stromberg to push a 50/50 split between physical sets and digital composites. China Town, where China Girl (another new character) is first met, was fully built including the giant broken teapots.
The scale of this films production was incredible and included over 2,000 costumes and 1,500 hats. The film was shot in 3D on multiple soundstages in Detroit and included a wide array of colors and styles culminating in the right look for the island, Emerald City, and the black & white Kansas segment set around 1890 – 1920. The one memento that the cast and crew received at the end of this huge production was a piece of the yellow brick road.
The humor worked well and the story was simple enough for young family members to follow. However, there were several slower moments that kept the film from being released during the big box office window of May through July. But for a spring release, it’s well worth watching, if for nothing else than to see how the story was crafted as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.