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James Franco finds magic in playing 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Published On: Mar 11 2013 02:02:02 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 07 2013 03:45:24 PM CST
James Franco Oz the Great and Powerful

Walt Disney Pictures

James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful."

Sure, there's a monstrous amount of pressure that comes with the new fantasy adventure "Oz the Great and Powerful," and for  the  right reason. After all, it's a prequel to one of the most beloved films of all time with "The Wizard of Oz," which continues to captivate audiences more than 70 years after its release in 1939.

Still and all, "Oz the Great and Powerful" star James Franco said he can't let himself get intimated by any built-in expectations that go with film, especially given the fact that the title character in "The Wizard of Oz" hardly featured the Wizard (Frank Morgan) at all in comparison to the fearless foursome that traveled down the yellow brick road.

"The idea of getting a chance to see the history of the man behind the curtain was one of, if not the initial spark that made producer Joe Roth  green-light  the script," Franco told me in a recent interview. "I knew the character of Oz, the protagonist, would be different. Our emissary into Oz would no longer be an innocent young woman -- it was a man who would be anything but innocent -- who could bounce off the world and not quite fit in, and all of that stumbling through Oz could be played for comedy."

Opening Friday in 2D and 3D theaters and IMAX venues nationwide, "Oz the Great and Powerful" follows the beginnings of L. Frank Baum's legendary character, Oscar Diggs (Franco), a  scheming,  small-time circus magician who is whisked away in a  hot-air balloon from the swirling dust  of Kansas and dropped in the mystical, vibrant land of Oz.

Seen as a prophetic figure who will save the land and its residents from a mysterious evil force, Oscar at first meets witch sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who are not quite convinced that the new visitor is all that he claims to because of his obvious lust for fame and riches.

Sent by the sisters on a mission to destroy an "evil" witch in the Dark Forest, Oscar soon finds out she is actually Glinda (Michelle Williams), a good witch who is quite aware of the magician's shady motivation. Still, she has faith that Oscar has the capability to be a better man -- and ultimately, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.

Directed by Sam Raimi, "Oz the Great and Powerful" also stars the voice of Zach Braff as Oscar's winged-monkey companion, Finley, and Joey King as the voice of China Girl, a living porcelain doll who teaches Oscar a thing or two about being human. Raimi's longtime friend and collaborator Bruce Campbell -- whose collaborative partnership dates back to the two making Super 8 films together in their youth -- also appears in a cameo in the film as guard and gatekeeper.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" marks the fourth time the "127 Hours" Oscar nominee has worked with Raimi, following the actor's stint as Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire) best friend-turned-nemesis Harry Osborn in the director's "Spider-Man" trilogy.

Franco, 35, said he was relieved to play a good guy for Raimi in "Oz the Great and Powerful," because, while they got along working on the "Spider-Man" films together, he felt the director found it easier to relate to Peter than Harry -- and it made a difference on the set.

"In those films I was a supporting character, and not only that, Harry wanted to kill Peter Parker because he thought Peter killed Harry's father," Franco explained. "Sam identifies very closely with a lot of his characters, and because he identified so closely with Peter Parker, I think he was little uncomfortable me around me at times. I felt like I wasn't getting the same amount of love from Sam as Tobey was just because of the characters we were playing."

That's not to say Raimi was cruel to Franco, the actor added, he just felt "secondary."

"In this film, I'm playing the lead character and I think Oscar Diggs is more in the mold of Sam's earlier protagonists like Bruce Campbell's character in 'The Evil Dead' films," Franco observed. "With 'Oz,' I was finally in the full sunlight of Sam's love."

In a past interview with Campbell, the actor told me that Raimi, a magician in his youth, loved the idea of filmmaking because it was the ultimate sleight of hand for him. So given the fact that Oscar is a magician and uses illusions in his efforts to save Oz, Franco believes the director was the perfect choice to tell the story of "Oz the Great and Powerful."

"Oscar Diggs is a stand-in for performers and filmmakers," Franco said. "And because of that, if Oscar were alive in 2013, he would be a film director and probably directing a film just like this one. Oscar is not only a performer, but he's interested in Thomas Edison and early forms of film projection. He does exactly what a director does, he creates an illusion that people can buy into."

The bonus, Franco added, as visually spectacular as "Oz the Great and Powerful" is, he knew that Raimi, based on his "Spider-Man" experiences, was as invested in the emotions of the characters as he was the film's look.

"In the case of 'Spider-Man,' even though he and the special effects team were inventing new techniques to capture swinging through the air, he spent as much time with the actors as he did the visual effects teams because he's driven by narrative and characters," Franco recalled. "I think he really set the template for all subsequent superhero films. He proved that you can have great characters and great films, and it's not all about the effects."

For "Oz the Great and Powerful," Franco said Raimi invested even more of his time in Oscar to help flesh out the character.

"I had the same faith that Sam, (production designer) Robert Stromberg, (visual effects supervisor) Scott Stokdyk and all the visual effects people would create a visually stunning version of Oz, but Sam also had a huge part in designing my character," Franco said. "This is why the character also has a journey. This is not just a travelogue film through a fantastical land with great visuals. It's not just a physical journey, it's an inner-journey. The character starts off in a rather low place -- he's a bit of a cad and very selfish, then moves on to becoming a better man."