Dir: Gary Rydstrom. US. 2015. 99mins
Aggressively targeting kids, although without much respect for their imagination or taste, Strange Magic jumbles together fairy-tale tropes as indifferently as it cross-pollinates pop music from different eras. A riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this animated musical/fantasy-adventure sports a juvenile brand of humour that’s not helped by an assortment of dopey, predictable characters who learn about the value of inner beauty in the most trite ways possible. Based on an idea from George Lucas, Strange Magic is rambunctious without being lively — and “magical” without being very magical.
With its slapstick humour and unsophisticated wordplay — to say nothing of its painfully familiar fairy-tale tropes — Strange Magic is clearly geared to audiences who are just now becoming accustomed to movies.
Opening January 23, this Lucasfilm offering (being released by Disney) will face some competition from Paddington, not to mention The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water, which arrives in a few weeks. The Lucas name may help some, and a voice cast that includes musical stars such as Kristin Chenoweth could also attract the curious. But with Strange Magic’s appeal limited mostly to younger viewers, it’s hard to see the film having much crossover potential or lasting commercial power.
Set in an enchanted land consisting of two territories — the lovely Fairy Kingdom and the frightening Dark Forest — Strange Magic introduces us to Marianne (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), a fairy princess who’s just been dumped by her supposed true love, an arrogant prince named Roland (voiced by Sam Palladio). Soon, though, Marianne must rescue her sister Dawn (voiced by Meredith Anne Bull), who has been kidnapped by the evil, ugly ruler of the Dark Forest, the Bog King (voiced by Alan Cumming).
Although not closely following the plot of Shakespeare’s comedy, Strange Magic incorporates the same sort of mismatched-lovers narrative and element of the fantastical. But the Bard’s wit and love of language are distressingly absent from this film, which was directed by seven-time Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, a legend in the world of sound design who has worked with Lucas since the 1980s. (He also directed the 2006 Oscar-nominated Pixar short Lifted.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Strange Magic feels like a very long effects demo reel, showing off “imaginative” fantasy worlds and sparkling sound without much soul underneath. However, the twin torpedoes that pulverize this film are its garish use of pop songs to underscore the characters’ emotions and the dull storytelling that reduces everyone on screen to little more than folktale clichés or tiresome comic relief.
First, the music. Incorporating tunes from Black Eyed Peas, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé, Strange Magic brings contemporary hits together with older tracks made famous by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and the Four Tops. But Rydstrom and music director Marius de Vries turn this jukebox cornucopia into chintzy, bland pop, the sentiments of classics like “Can’t Help Falling In Love” broadened so that they become little more than place-holders for where the characters’ feelings should be.
Likewise, the screenplay — credited to three writers, including Rydstrom, from a story by Lucas — bypasses legitimate emotional shading for easy button-pushing schmaltz. This is no more evident than with Marianne, a fairy who’s independent, fierce and an expert at swordplay. At first glance, she seems designed to be a progressive response to so many years of wan damsel-in-distress Disney princesses, but in the wake of recent films like Brave, Tangled and Frozen that have worked to give their female protagonists genuine dimensions, Strange Magic seems uninspired, almost condescending, in its treatment of a proactive princess.
Not much else in Strange Magic is very memorable, either. Cumming gives the Bog King a certain melancholy stirring, but his unexpected courtship of Marianne — and his polite rejections of Dawn (who has been accidentally doused with a love potion from Chenoweth’s Sugar Plum Fairy) — never develops beyond a grade-school simplicity. Even the obnoxiously gallant Roland will merely call to mind better portrayals of preening would-be Prince Charmings in superior works such as Into The Woods and Beauty And The Beast.
With its slapstick humour and unsophisticated wordplay — to say nothing of its painfully familiar fairy-tale tropes — Strange Magic is clearly geared to audiences who are just now becoming accustomed to movies. There’s nothing too dark, nothing too challenging, about Strange Magic, and perhaps an argument could be made that a film like this is a perfectly fine introduction for young viewers into the magic and spectacle of the movies. But then one remembers that Disney has released plenty of far better examples in its rich history — and most of them are still readily available for the child in your life.
Production company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
US distribution: Disney, www.movies.disney.com
Producer: Mark S. Miller
Executive producers: George Lucas, Kiri Hart, Jason McGatlin
Screenplay: David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, Gary Rydstrom, based on a story by George Lucas
Editor: Chris Plummer
Music: Marius de Vries
Main voice cast: Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Bob Einstein, Peter Stormare