James Franco
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Oz: The Great and Powerful isn’t just walking the yellow brick road — it’s walking a delicate line.

Playing off a beloved, classic movie is a dangerous game. On one hand, you’ve got a built-in audience who cares deeply about the original. On the other, those fans are even quicker to turn on you if they feel the new film doesn’t live up the one they’re so passionate about.

The teaser footage revealed at Disney’s D23 fan gathering begins “Before a house fell out of the sky… ” and it seems to mirror 1939’s The Wizard of Oz in multiple ways, not the least of which is the apparent use of grainy black-and-white film stock for the bookending “real world” scenes of James Franco’s young would-be wizard.

Sam Raimi’s movie, which started shooting in soundstages in Detroit on July 21, and is aiming for a March 2013 debut, is clearly trying to draw on fond memories of Judy Garland’s film version of Frank L. Baum’s fantasy story, while also trying to leapfrog it with a prequel story.

“While there have been movies and stage plays based on the series, one story has been left untold,” Sean Bailey, Disney’s head of production, told the crowd. “Who is the wizard and where did he come from?”

Or as Franco paradoxically put it: “We’re stepping into a great tradition, but a tradition that isn’t fully established yet.”

While the images and footage haven’t been released, here’s what those of us at the presentation saw …

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Director Sam Raimi, best known for the Spider-Man and The Evil Dead movies (and for always wearing suits on set) appeared on screen dressed in an old-fashioned black tie and dark suit, looking not unlike Baum himself. Or maybe that’s just the kind of suit popular among the time-setting of the movie. (Raimi is known for immersing himself in his fictional worlds.)

“Oz is almost part of our DNA, this fantastic take on our own world where our dreams can come true, where we can become the people we long to be,” he says. “But also there are dangers along the yellow bring road… ” Cue ominous music!

Raimi is playing pitchman a little bit, which is what his main character is, years before he became the man behind the curtain you should pay no attention to. “When we first meet Oz, he’s a carnival showman, a magician,” Raimi said the teaser footage. “Though he has a good heart, it’s gotten lost somewhere along the way.”

Obviously the movie is only a few weeks into production, and so there weren’t any completed special effects shots (though flashes of black-and-white imagery in battered prairie-type houses, which hinted at the same framework as the 1939 movie). We did see a lot of concept imagery spectacular, glistening new versions of the Emerald City, and surreal, lush landscapes that look like Arches National Park but with heaps of earth, grass and crops growing on ridges instead of plain rock. At one point, the wizard travels by giant bubble, à la Glinda (played in this version by Michelle Williams).

The two other – allegedly evil — witches are Evanora, played by Rachel Weisz, and Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, though Bailey said audiences will have to wait for the movie to learn whether they or Glinda are truly the wicked ones.

Whatever the case, the movie is aiming to be a redemption story for its main character.

As Franco puts it: “He’s kind of a cad. He’s a bit of a lothario, a seducer … In Oz he’s allowed a second chance.”

But I don’t know, James – second chance? If Oz is where “we can become the people we long to be,” as Raimi said, then I choose cad, lothario and seducer.

On Twitter: @Breznican

Read more: