'What would you do with a brain if you had one?" Dorothy Gale, late of Kansas, asks the Scarecrow, one of her woebegone traveling companions in The Wizard of Oz.
Well, I think they left part of Scarecrow's response out of that little 1939 release - only among the most-seen, most-loved movies of all time.
If I'm not mistaken, the Scarecrow's full answer included the warning, "Why, if I had a brain, I would never, ever make a prequel to The Wizard of Oz that costs $325 million and starred that dude from 127 Hours who is enrolled in all those doctoral programs, and who directs designer jeans videos and shills for Gucci Homme."
To be fair (and we must, mustn't we?), the problems with Oz the Great and Powerful go way beyond James Franco, who has been given the title role - as a flimflamming carnival magician who crash-lands on the outskirts of the Emerald City, a shameless poseur whom all the Munchkins and Quadlings and Tinkers are counting on to make things right again.
Trippy beyond trippiness, with a design aesthetic that makes high-end Las Vegas revues look like they were staged by Shakers, Oz the Great and Powerful samples from L. Frank Baum's Oz canon, and from the still-wondrous MGM movie (although some trademark elements, like the ruby slippers, are indeed trademarked and couldn't be used), but then goes ahead and tries to outdo Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in eye-popping, super-hued, comin'-at-ya visual effects. (Yes, it's in 3-D.)
And if that's not enough, the pile-it-on makeup artists and costume designers have transformed Franco's lovely trio of costars - Mila Kunis (she's Theodora, the Witch of the West), Rachel Weisz (Evanora, the Witch of the East), and Michelle Williams (Glinda, the good one) - into creatures better equipped to sing backup for RuPaul than to sling sorcery and spells.
Things begin promisingly, with a black-and-white prologue set on Kansas fairgrounds and framed in the same boxy screen ratio that Thomas Edison developed at the dawn of cinema. (Edison is cited twice in the film as a true wizard - not at all the faux wiz here.)
Franco's carny charlatan is a hopeless cad, coming on to every pretty girl he can lure into his tent. When the circus strongman finds out that his wife is one of those girls, he comes roaring after Oz - real name Oscar. At the same time, an epic twister is winding its way across the plains, and no sooner has Oz climbed a hot-air balloon to make his getaway than the balloon and the twister meet.
When things settle down again, the screen magically transitions from squarish black and white to wide-screen super-color. Oz has landed in Oz, and so much for thinking that director Sam Raimi was going to try something like Martin Scorsese's Hugo. Out with the cineasts homages, and in with the Day-Glo carnivorous flowers, pesky biting river fairies, and befanged flying baboons. (Note to parents: The baboons are especially scary - the get-me-outta-here wails of several small children could be heard during a prerelease screening this week.)
Unlike The Wizard of Oz, which is all about Dorothy - a road movie for, and about, girls - Oz the Great and Powerful's protagonist is a guy. A "weak, selfish, slightly egotistic, and a fibber" kind of guy, as Glinda sums him up. And so Oz must make his journey, accompanied by a "cute" flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who wears a bellhop's hat and who is actually kind of creepy, and by a little China doll (voiced by Joey King) that looks like a CG-animated Henry Darger heroine, and is actually kind of creepy, too.
It's a journey of self-discovery, rife with movie cliches about believing in yourself, believing in your dreams, yada-yada. And along the way, the impossibly sweet Glinda nudges Oz into accomplishing more than he thinks he's capable of.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, sibling sorceresses Evanora and Theodora follow the action through a crystal ball and bicker amongst themselves. It turns into epic bickering, in fact, when one discovers the other has been misleading her.
And maybe this is a spoiler, but at the end, instead of dissolving into a puddle of water, one of these wicked witches turns into a sod-covered old crone covered in leafy, feathery debris. You want her to wail, "Look what you've done! I'm molting, molting!"
Alas, she does not.
Oz the Great and Powerful ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Sam Raimi. With James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (flying baboons, intense scares)
Playing at: area theaters