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The newest film incarnation finds the wizard in the making

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
On the way to the Emerald City in 1939's 'The Wizard of Oz.' Warner Bros.

Attempting to follow-up a film like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) seems like hubris, but Disney has actually been planning this for a long time.

This prequel stars James Franco as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a traveling circus magician in 1905 Kansas and his adventures into the land of Munchkins, witches and flying monkeys.

The combination of whimsical fantasy and Technicolor magic and the 1939 innocence of 1939 filmgoers gave “The Wizard of Oz” an impact far out of proportion to its estimated expense of $2.7 million (about $44 million in today's dollars). At the time, that was a lot.

The staggering expense of “Oz the Great and Powerful” — up to $325 million to make and market, according to the New York Times — is almost unremarkable now.

“Oz the Great and Powerful,” which opens in theaters March 8, is loosely based on material from L. Frank Baum's iconic “Oz” novels, which are now part of the public domain. The way intellectual property laws are today, Disney had to scrupulously avoid most things associated with the 1939 MGM film. There are no ruby slippers, for example. Even the Wicked Witch's green skin color had to be slightly different.

It's a safe bet that the people most closely watching “Oz the Great and Powerful” are Warner Bros., who now owns the 1939 MGM film, and those Disney lawyers.

Here are some of the other key differences between the two visions of Oz:

Time period: “Oz the Great and Powerful” is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz,” set quite some time before Dorothy sets off along that yellow brick road. It's the story of how the wizard, played by James Franco, came to be.

Format: In “The Wizard of Oz,” the transition from black and white to Technicolor was a shock to moviegoers. “Oz the Great and Powerful” uses 3-D technology, which is particularly potent in the tornado scene. But it's safe to say that today's moviegoers aren't shocked by 3-D, which has been around for years.

Witches: There are simply more of them in “Oz the Great and Powerful” — remember, Dorothy knocked one off at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz.” The three ladies — Theodora (the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Mila Kunis), her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) — have more to do. They also have some actual character development. There are good witches, bad witches and in-between, and those who change from one to the other. After the success of the stage musical “Wicked,” a greater role for the iconic witches was likely a given.

Music: “The Wizard of Oz” had Judy Garland, who could really sing, and was made in an era where big-budget movie musicals were incredibly common and successful. In “Oz the Great and Powerful” the munchkins try to get a song-and-dance routine going, but Oz/Oscar puts a stop to it. Thankfully, Franco does not sing. Danny Elfman does the score. Mariah Carey sings the theme song.

Monkeys: The flying monkeys in “Oz the Great and Powerful” are bat-winged baboons (Oscar's sidekick, Finley, excepted).

Cleavage: “The Wizard of Oz” had none. “Oz the Great and Powerful” has lots. Yes, even the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the good witch sport some seriously low-cut dresses.

Mike Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901

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