At one point in "Oz The Great and Powerful," Oz (James Franco) says to China Doll, a Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) character voiced by Joey King, "One rule in show biz: Never work with kids or animals," adding, "I already have this ... ," as he gestures to another CGI character, Finley, a monkey in a bellhop suit voiced by Zach Braff.

To that show-business adage, it could be added, "Never work with CGI characters."

At least in "Oz the Great and Powerful," for James Franco and other live-action actors, it's a losing battle.

And, despite the CGI, 3D and special effects, "Oz The Great and Powerful" falls flat.

As Evanora (Rachel Weisz), one of three witches in the film, says of the character, Oz, "Not so great and powerful, after all."

Much the same can be said of this big-budget blockbuster billed as a prequel to the beloved classic, "The Wizard of Oz," which starred Judy Garland as Dorothy.

Dorothy, nor the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion are anywhere to be seen along the yellow brick road.

In addition to Evanora, who could be interpreted as being the Wicked Witch of the East, there's Glinda (Michelle Williams), the Good Witch of the North, and Theodora (Mila Kunis), who becomes the Wicked Witch of the West.

Special effects usually cannot backfill a deficient screenplay. This is true of "Oz the Great and Powerful," written by Mitchell Kapner ("The Whole Nine Yards") and David Lindsay-Abaire ("Rise of the Guardians," "Rabbit Hole," "Robots"), based on the L. Frank Baum novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

There is a lack of character development, lack of memorable dialogue, lack of plot and a paucity of story.

The film's first 20 minutes, which takes place at a circus in Kansas in 1905, is in black and white, an homage to or a rip-off of the 1939 classic.

The framing for the black and white scenes is square, almost like that of the 16 mm format. So, you feel kind of silly sitting there in the movie theater watching the opening sequence, having paid a premium price to wear those 3D glasses.

After arriving In Oz, the film's colors, special effects and soundtrack are dazzling. However, the Emerald City scenes are not particularly imaginative. And the gaggle of Emerald City extras give the appearance of waiting for a break in the filming to make a beeline for the craft services buffet.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, who becomes Oz in this retelling directed by Sam Raimi ("Spiderman" films) with a sense of supreme unctuousness. Franco is often an interesting film actor. Here, he is not.

Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis do as best they can with what are essentially scenery-chewing roles.

The most believable performance is that of China Doll, a toy doll whose CGI animators give her an emotional range that outpaces the flesh-and-blood actors. China Doll should have her own film.

"Oz the Great and Powerful" can be chiefly enjoyed by pre-teens. Some of the close-up images of the flying monkeys and other creatures or battles may be too frightening for those under, say, age six.

The 3D and Imax effects are not worth the extra price of admission unless you're into spit takes and flying spears.

Other reinterpretations of "The Wizard of Oz," including "The Wiz" and Broadway's "Wicked," are so much more intriguing and fun.

Nonetheless, with the $80 million-plus domestic opening of the $215-million budgeted "Oz the Great and Powerful," a sequel's already in pre-production.

"Oz the Great and Powerful," MPAA Rated PG (Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children) for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language; Genre: Adventure, Family, Fantasy; Run time: 2 hrs., 30 mins.; Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Scenes for "Oz the Great and Powerful" were filmed in Michigan.

Box Office, March 15: "Oz the Great and Powerful" led movie-goers back down the yellow brick road at No. 1, two weeks in a row, $42.2 million, $145 million, two weeks; putting "The Call" on hold, opening at No. 2, with $17.1 million; and indicating there's little magic in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," opening at No. 3, with only $10.3 million.

4. "Jack the Giant Slayer," $6.2 million, $53.9 million, three weeks; 5. "Identity Thief," $4.5 million, $124 million, six weeks; 6. "Snitch," $3.5 million, $37.2 million, four weeks; 7. "21 and Over," $2.6 million, $21.8 million, three weeks; 8. "Silver Linings Playbook," $2.5 million, $124.6 million, 18 weeks; 9. "Safe Haven," $2.4 million, $66.9 million, five weeks; 10. "Escape from Planet Earth," $2.3 million, $52.1 million, five weeks

Unreel, March 22:

"Olympus Has Fallen," R: A guard rescues the President of the United States when terrorists attack the White House. The action-thriller stars Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhard, Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett.

"The Croods," PG: The first prehistoric family goes on a road trip. The animated feature comedy features the voices of Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone and Catherine Keener.

"Admission," PG-13: A Princeton University meets a college-bound student who may be the son she gave up years ago. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd star in the comedy.

"Love and Honor," PG-13: A Vietnam War soldier goes AWOL to return to the United States to win back his hometown girlfriend. Liam Hemsworth and Teresa Palmer star in the romantic drama.

Read previous movie reviews by Paul Willistein at the Times-News web site, tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com [1].

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes