Will 'Oz The Great And Powerful' Gain Emerald Status?

The newest movie version of The Wizard of Oz, opens this weekend. Oz the Great and Powerful stars James Franco as the wizard. The movie goes beyond the Technicolor wonder of the famous MGM film to a full-blown 2013 treatment with 3D and surround sound.

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"The Wizard of Oz" means to a lot of people, a young Judy Garland in sparkly ruby slippers. But in the hundred years since L. Frank Baum wrote the Oz stories, they, or stories featuring Oz characters, have been produced dozens of times. The latest, a prequel that opens in theaters this weekend, called "Oz the Great and Powerful."

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has more.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This newest version begins like the classic 1939 "Wizard of Oz" movie, in Kansas, black and white, a tornado. But instead of Judy Garland's Dorothy, "Oz the Great and Powerful" stars James Franco as the Wizard.

JAMES FRANCO: My character is Oscar Diggs, and he goes by Oz. And he starts as a magician in a traveling circus in Kansas.

BARCO: And he's also a bit of a cad with the ladies.

FRANCO: He's then transported to this fantastical land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (as Oz) Ah...

BARCO: This "Oz" movie goes beyond the Technicolor wonder of the MGM film, to a full blown 2013 treatment with 3D and surround sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL")

FRANCO: (as Oz) Am I dreaming?

MILA KUNIS: (as Theodora) You're in Oz.

BARCO: Director Sam Raimi says this new fairytale was not based on L. Frank Baum's original 14 books. And it's not a remake of the iconic MGM movie.

SAM RAIMI: We're trying to nod lovingly in its direction and make our own original, fun, wacky, emotional story that lives on its own.

BARCO: Warner Brothers trademarked certain details of the 1939 film, so Disney's new "Oz" movie doesn't feature Dorothy's ruby slippers - which in the book were silver. In fact, this movie doesn't mention Dorothy, the Tin Woodsman, The Scarecrow or the Cowardly Lion. The wicked witch is a different shade of green. And the munchkins don't sing. There is a yellow brick road, and an Emerald City and monkeys do fly, but this prequel is not a musical.

Raimi admits it's a challenge to live up to the beloved 1939 film classic.

RAIMI: It was a rite of passage to watch it, to get through it as a kid. When those flying monkeys came on, I would shake. And that witch, when she reached for those shoes and those legs melted, it was awful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

MARGARET HAMILTON: (as The Wicked Witch) I'm melting. Melting...

BARCO: Actually, the "Oz" stories have been onscreen and onstage for more than a century. L. Frank Baum wrote his first "Oz" book in 1900, and two years later it became a musical extravaganza and Broadway hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Tell me. Oh-oh-oh, tell me...

MICHAEL PATRICK HEARN: It's more of a burlesque of the original book. It was all about falling in and out of love.

BARCO: Author Michael Patrick Hearn is a leading expert on Baum and his works.

HEARN: Of course, the lead is Dorothy, who falls in love with the poet-prince, played by another woman in tights. Instead of Toto, there's the cow, Imogene. The Wizard of Oz eventually became a, Irish, wisecracking comedian.

BARCO: Baum wrote more "Oz" books and more stage shows with chorus girls. He even performed multimedia lectures about "Oz" around the country. The productions bankrupted him, but it didn't stop him from producing short "Oz" films in Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARCO: After Baum died in 1919, several silent movies took on the material. Hearn points to one made in 1925.

HEARN: It's terrible.

(LAUGHTER)

HEARN: There is a cyclone. There is Dorothy. There's a Tin Woodsman played by Oliver Hardy, before he was teamed with Stan Laurel. But it's really a slapstick comedy with some racial jokes in it that are inappropriate.

BARCO: In the 1920s and '30s, there was a "Wizard of Oz" radio show, numerous puppet shows and community theater versions. Then came the 1939 film that's became the gold - or emerald - standard for every "Oz" production since.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE WIZARD OF OZ")

JUDY GARLAND: (as Dorothy) (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high...

BARCO: "The Wizard of Oz" has been retold around the world in cartoons, by The Muppets, dancers, ice skaters and students. Hearn says "Oz" stories have done better on Broadway than in the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "THE WIZ")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road...

BARCO: The Broadway hit "The Wiz" was a less successful movie with Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow and Diana Ross as Dorothy.

And on Broadway now, "Wicked" is a smash, with its back story of The Wicked Witch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "WICKED")

CHORUS: (Singing) The wickedest witch there ever was, the enemy of all of us here in Oz, is dead.

BARCO: This is not the first time Disney has tackled the "Oz" stories. Its 1985 "Return to Oz" begins with Dorothy back in Kansas, threatened with electroshock therapy for dreaming about the Land of Oz.

HEARN: It is a very disturbing film. Shock therapy for - not Dorothy.

BARCO: With L. Frank Baum's stories in the public domain, Hearn says it's a shame most versions, including the newest one, don't go back to the original source material.

HEARN: One of the sad things is that instead of just relying on "The Wizard of Oz" and trying to capitalize on the success of the film, they don't look at his other works and try to adapt them.

BARCO: Besides "Oz the Great and Powerful," there are eight other "Oz" movies in the pipeline. And next year, the MGM classic will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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