‘Strange Magic’ Review: Strange? Yes. Magic? Not So Much.
Before he was George Lucas, the guy who changed blockbusters forever with ‘Star Wars,’ he was George Lucas, the guy who changed the way Hollywood used pop music with ‘American Graffiti.’ Though ‘Graffiti’ is maybe Lucas’ seventh most-famous movie, it was hugely influential in its day, and its massive grosses inspired so many imitators it essentially invented a new sub-genre: the radio-hit-scored ensemble coming-of-age movie. 40 years after creating that concept, Lucas returns to destroy it with ‘Strange Magic,’ a high-tech, low-brow update of that formula, with computer-generated fairies and bugs pining after one another over a soundtrack of classic pop songs.
The story, cribbed from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘FernGully’ with a sprinkling of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and just a dash of ‘Star Wars’-style swordplay, concerns a pointless war between the Dark Forest and the Fairy Kingdom, which is ruled by a benevolent (and vaguely George Lucas-looking) king (voiced by Alfred Molina) and his two daughters, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). Marianne’s heart was broken by an arrogant, conceited Gaston-type named Roland (Sam Palladio), and from that day forward she started dressing like a goth and singing that old goth favorite, “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” by Burt Bacharach.
Eventually tensions between the fairies and the ... whatever-they-ares of the Dark Forest spill over, and Dawn is kidnapped by the Bog King (Alan Cumming), a hideous insectoid beast who hates love in all its forms (three guesses why and the first two don’t count and the third must involve the singing of a 30-year-old pop standard). Marianne flies to the rescue, while Roland masses an army to destroy the Bog King, and a troll named Sunny (Elijah Kelley) tries to save Dawn. A magical love potion by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) gets involved, creating unexpected and uncontrollable attractions between various characters, but doing nothing to slow the deluge of undistinguished karaoke versions of radio tunes like “C’mon Marianne,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and, of course, ELO’s “Strange Magic.” Because if there’s anything the children of 2015 love, it’s Electric Light Orchestra.
In this case, the title is half right; ‘Strange Magic’ is decidedly weird but hardly exceptional. Some of it’s so bizarre—armored butterflies riding squirrels through fields of talking, sentient mushrooms—that it might look interesting in the right (i.e. chemically-altered) frame of mind. But mostly it’s more confused than anything else; a throwback to an old-fashioned jukebox musical that’s also a showcase for modern computer animation (created by Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and the wizards of Industrial Light & Magic) and bears a warm message about inner beauty and self-reliance muddled by wonky gender politics (and a heroine who insists she’s independent but spends most of her time pining over a couple different men and/or bugs).
The animation, directed by Gary Rydstrom, flows and flies smoothly through forests and caves, but the character designs, even for the supposedly “attractive” creatures, are sometimes extremely off-putting. (The Fairy Kingdom and Dark Forest both appear to be located in the Uncanny Valley.) Maybe the eerily undead faces were intended as another facet of the film’s theme about not judging books by their covers. Or maybe the animators simply weren’t up to the standards set by Pixar, DreamWorks, or even Lucas’ own live-action films.
Some of the performers have lovely voices, but most of their songs are overproduced—and rushed—into oblivion. ‘Strange Magic’ never lets up for even a second, as if Rydstrom and Lucas were determined not to give their attention-deficient target audience a moment to get bored. The breathless pacing still isn’t enough though; at the screening I attended, several kids spent much of the last act crinkling their plastic food trays and fidgeting rather than paying attention to the big climactic battle and sing-along. It’s hard to blame them; this mess is so manic and misguided it makes ‘The Phantom Menace’ look like ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’