Updated at: 03/07/2013 2:09 PM
By SANDY COHEN
(AP) LOS ANGELES - Returning to the mystical land of "The Wizard of Oz" took more than 70 years and several hundred millions dollars.
Disney releases its highly anticipated prequel to the 1939 movie classic on Friday. Directed by Sam Raimi, "Oz the Great and Powerful" explores the origins of the wizard (James Franco) and the witches (Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz) in a three-dimensional Oz.
The $200 million production, not counting another $100 million in estimated marketing costs, is a huge gamble for everyone involved, considering "The Wizard of Oz" is among the most enduring and beloved films of all time. Even Raimi, director of the first three "Spider-Man" movies, described the project as "daunting."
The risk is compounded by a general box-office slump and a poor showing for last weekend’s $200 million big-screen take on another popular tale, "Jack the Giant Slayer," based on "Jack and the Beanstalk."
"The plus side is that there’s such incredible awareness of `The Wizard of Oz’ that it’s going to translate into a mammoth opening weekend for `Oz the Great and Powerful,’" said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for Fandango.com. "The danger is that many people’s natural tendency will be to compare this to `The Wizard of Oz,’ and there’s no film that will ever live up to that."
According to a survey done by the site, nearly all those buying tickets for the new "Oz" film have seen the original, and the film is far and away the most popular of the week, comprising almost 80 percent of tickets sold.
Franco has loved the world created by L. Frank Baum since he first saw the 1939 movie on TV as a kid. It inspired him to read all of Baum’s books, which led him to other fantasy fare such as "Alice in Wonderland" and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. But the notion of revisiting the Land of Oz with an A-list director wasn’t enough to lure Franco to the leading role.
"I already had a lot of faith in the movie because Sam was attached, but as an Oz fan, I wanted to be sure that the approach was sound," the actor said. "They very smartly did not just do a boy version of Dorothy and have the same trip through Oz."
For one, Franco notes the wizard is a con man and his trip through Oz is very different than Dorothy’s was. "He’ll be getting into awkward situations, basically kind of bouncing off of Oz in ways that Dorothy didn’t," the actor said.
While the new "Oz" has plenty of familiar elements _ the yellow brick road, Emerald City, witches, munchkins (now multi-ethnic) _ "the ways they’re interacting with the protagonist (are) completely different," Franco said.
As the film opens in sepia-toned 1905 Kansas, Franco’s Oscar Diggs is a carnival magician who dreams of fame and fortune at any cost. When a twister whisks him to a fantastical land bearing his stage name _ Oz _ whose inhabitants believe him to be a wizard sent to save them, he can’t believe his luck. Power and riches are practically his for the taking.
But first, he faces three witches, none of whom are exactly as they seem. Oz befriends a few locals, including a flying monkey (Zach Braff) and a china doll (Joey King), and eventually makes the plight of the people of Oz his own.
Like Franco, Raimi grew up loving the original "Oz" film.
"I remember it being the scariest movie I’d ever seen in my life and also the most touching movie, the saddest, sweetest thing I’d ever seen," he said. "It was that spirit of sweetness, of characters becoming complete by the end of the story _ that was the most powerful thing I took away from the 1939 classic and the thing we tried collectively to put in our picture."
Some critics have questioned the casting of Franco as the wizard. The AP’s Christy Lemire wrote that he’s "too boyish for the role ... neither charismatic nor self-loathing enough."
Yet Raimi believes Franco was the perfect actor to portray the wizard: "He was born to play the part."
Franco and Raimi are personal friends, and the director said he’s seen the actor’s growth as a performer and an individual since they first worked together on 2002’s "Spider-Man."
"I knew James was a moody dreamer, and that’s who Oz is," Raimi said. "He dreams of being this great man, even if he doesn’t know what greatness is."
The director knew Franco could embody both the selfishness _ which Raimi had seen in the actor when he was younger _ and the heart of the wizard.
"Because James had, in his life, been all of these things, I knew that if he could grab a hold of them and recognize them and hold up a mirror to himself _ however actors do that _ he could channel everything he was through this character and really bring him to life like no one else," Raimi said.
Franco said playing the role "was really like I was stepping into the imaginative world of my childhood."
And coming into Oz through the wily wizard, whose origins were never fully explored in the Baum books, is an inspired way to revisit the world, he said.
"It’s a great way to return to Oz through a character that you sort of know but not really," the actor said. "Because of that, it’s a great entry that feels familiar and new."
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APSandy.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)