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Strange Magic Review

January 23, 2015 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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Strange Magic Review  

Directed By: Gary Rydstrom
Written By: David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, Gary Rydstrom, and George Lucas
Runtime: 99 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Featuring the Voices of:

Marianne – Evan Rachel Wood
Alan Cumming – The Bog King
Meredith Anne Bull – Dawn
Elijah Kelley – Sunny
Sam Palladio – Roland
Kristin Chenoweth – Sugar Plum Fairy
Maya Rudolph – Griselda
Alfred Molina – Fairy King
Peter Stormare – Thang
Bob Einstein – Stuff
Kevin Michael Richardson – Brutus
Llou Johnson – Pare
Brenda Chapman – Imp

When you buy out a company like Disney did with Lucasfilm, you not only buy its assets, you absorb its debts. And thus, one of Disney’s debts from George Lucas is the new CG animated jukebox fantasy musical Strange Magic. Despite the fact that George Lucas did not actually direct the film or serve as an actual screenwriter (Lucas only received a “Story By” credit), the marketing campaign for the film has absolutely no problem at all hammering the fact that this movie is from the “Mind of George Lucas.” Since Disney does not appear to mind making it look like this is George Lucas’ film, I suppose the audience knows exactly who to blame.

When Rango was released in 2011, I was initially quite excited by visual FX powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) getting into the animated feature game. However, Rango was a much more interesting and story-driven film. It was more rewarding and experimental in ways that Strange Magic was not. Unfortunately, Strange Magic proves that part of what made Rango work was an experienced and visionary director with a lot of experience. Strange Magic marks the feature debut of director Gary Rydstrom. Rydstrom previously wrote and directed the Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation, which was a completely delightful short film. However, with Strange Magic, Rydstrom bit off more than he could chew in attempting to bring Lucas’ mash-up of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, fairy fantasy, and musical comedy to life.

In Strange Magic, there are two forests. The Dark Forest, is ruled by the miserly Bog King (Cumming); and the Fairy Kingdom on the other side is ruled by the Fairy King (Molina). Both sides appear to be in an uneasy standstill, but the separation of the kingdoms remains.

The story follows fairy princess Marianne (Wood), who is all set to wed the handsome, yet vain and shallow, Roland (Palladio). The nuptials are promptly called off during Marianne’s rendition “Can’t Help Falling In Love” when she sees Roland kissing another fairy. Seconds later, Marianne decides to shed her good girl fairy image and becomes a Goth punk girl who likes to swing swords and keep her ditzy, flirty sister, Dawn (Bull) from accidentally falling into the Dark Forest, where she would likely be devoured by her own flightiness. The problem is that Dawn has friend-zoned her elf buddy, Sunny (Kelley). Roland still wants to marry Marianne so he can gain kingship, so he dupes Sunny into getting a prim rose petal to make a love potion. With a love potion, Sunny will make Dawn fall in love with him, and Roland will use it on Marianne.

Prim roses are only grown on the border between the two kingdoms. However, the Bog King has put a wholesale ban on prim roses and love potions. Sunny sneaks into the kingdom, and with the help of a mischievous Imp (Chapman), locates the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth). The Sugar Plum Fairy is the only one who has the power to make the love potion, which is why she has been imprisoned by the Bog King. Sunny manages to steal the potion and takes it back to the Fairy Kingdom. He dusts it on Dawn, but she is captured by the Bog King’s minions before Sunny can get it to work. The Bog King considers the potion to be an act of war between the two kingdoms, and demands it be given to him before the moon falls or he will execute Dawn. However, the Bog King is not such a bad guy. He is just a little lonely and needs someone to love him back…someone like perhaps…Marianne. Meanwhile the Imp has procured the potion himself to spread it around the forests because he functions as this story’s version of Puck. So, Sunny looks to get it back. All the while, fairies, elves, goblins, and various critters break out into pop songs of all sorts from varying decades, ranging from Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons to Kelli Clarkson.

I like a good musical. I love animation. I love fantasy stories. I even enjoy a good pop song now and again. On its surface, this film is made up of things that I like, but none of them are really executed and come together in a profoundly affecting and entertaining manner. The film’s art design, style, and general conflicts looks like they were robbed from dozens of other stories, including Arthur and the Invisibles and Epic. The story is inexplicably weak. The dialogue is extremely trite and hackneyed. The dialogue more or less comes off as placeholders to fill up time in between each pop song musical number. I have nothing against pop songs, but their placement throughout the story is not well executed. For example, there is a point in the movie where Marianne is singing Kelli Clarkson’s “Stronger” when it makes no sense, hence, it is better for an animated musical comedy to use its own songs instead of paying out the wazzoo for royalty and licensing fees to use pre-existing songs. In Frozen, all the songs fit the scenes and particularly what happens at each moment in the film. Strange Magic… not so much.

The story is remarkably clumsy in its effort to service the musical numbers. There is the Fairy King, who desperately wants to marry off his older daughter to a cheating philanderer in Roland, but cannot stand the thought of his younger daughter dancing with a boy. Beyond that, The King has no character . Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favorite comedies of the Bard, but to even say the film was loosely inspired by that play is somewhat of a stretch. There is a love potion and there is a mischievous character who wants to spread it around…and that is about it. The love potion is only used once in an event that is significant to the main story, where Dawn is dusted with the potion and then falls in love with the Bog King as a result. The story meanders before it finally gets to the main point” Marianne and Bog King’s opposites attract romance, which is more reminiscent of Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast than anything else. That is not to say this film is as good as the 1991 animated classic in any way. Quite frankly, during many scenes, I thought that the film might have been more entertaining with a sample of some choice Disney show tunes instead of pop songs.

The film is not completely devoid of its amusing moments. Some of the Bog King’s minions are cute and fun–similar to the appealing critters of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, or aliens filling up the backgrounds of Star Wars films. There is a part in the film where the Bog King’s goons and his mother Griselda (Rudolph) attempt to incite romance between the Bog King and Marianne by setting up a romantic candlelit dinner. The goblin goons then start singing The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” That was kind of fun. The film’s animation and visuals are very well done. Some of the creature designs look very impressive. ILM did not skimp on any detail at all here. The depth and clarity of the visuals, even for an animated feature, are very impressive. It looks like the film was shot and meant to be released in 3D. As this film was an acquisition by Disney in the Lucasfilm buyout, it seems the studio not want to go the extra mile and spend additional funds for a wide 3D release.

That said, many of the sequences show an impressive amount of depth that almost make the film look 3D without it being presented in that format. Unfortunately, the main characters look odd and unappealing. The elf characters, like Sunny, are mostly built like troll dolls (the toy dolls not actual trolls), but their faces are almost photo realistic. So it is awkwardly jarring to look at the face of a character like Sunny. The character design almost resembles that of the much maligned motion captured films like Mars Needs Moms or Beowulf.

Strange Magic is really not an unbearably awful movie. It is just abundantly uninspired and derivative. As the title indicates, the film fails to weave a magic that is all its own.

The final score: review Poor
The 411
If you still do not believe that January is Hollywood's dumping ground month for movies, look no further Strange Magic, a debt Disney is forced to pay as a result of the Lucasfilm acquisition. The film has some class animation, but a story and characters that are devoid of any substance. There are some humorous moments. Teenage girls addicted to Glee might find things to like about this. Otherwise, I would likely avoid it.

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Strange Magic, Jeffrey Harris