Since George Lucas got out of the Star Wars business, he’s been lending his Hollywood heft to some long-gestating passion projects that might be difficult to produce independently elsewhere. He started developing Red Tails, a war movie about the Tuskegee airmen, back in 1988 and eventually served as producer and an uncredited co-director on the 2012 movie.
Lucasfilm’s latest, Strange Magic, is directed by Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, but it’s also been around for much longer than you’d think. 15 years ago, while working on that pesky prequel trilogy, Lucas started thinking about making a film for his daughters. “Just like Star Wars was designed for 12-year-old boys,” Lucas told Wired upon the film’s US release in January, “Strange Magic was designed for 12-year-old girls.”
If that sounds a little reminiscent of when John Travolta was trying to peddle Battlefield Earth as “like Star Wars but better”, then don’t panic – the very worst you can say about Strange Magic is that it’s a noble failure. This isn’t just a fairytale, but a jukebox musical that’s inflected with equal parts Shakespeare and Disney, and it might just be the oddest animated film you’ll see all year.
In a magical woodland realm, primroses mark the border between the fairy kingdom and the dark forest. These flowers are the magic ingredient necessary to make love potions and the Bog King (voiced by Alan Cumming) rules the dark side (no relation to the Force) without love, going so far as to imprison the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristen Chenoweth) who is capable of mixing these potions, in a bid to quell it.
Over in the fairy kingdom, the Fairy King (Alfred Molina) despairs of his daughters’ love lives – young, flirtatious Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) falls in love with practically every bloke she sees and older, wiser Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) has shut herself off after she was betrayed by her preening, power-hungry fiancee Roland (Sam Palladio.) But thanks to a lovesick little elf called Sunny, (Elijah Kelley) a new batch of love potion is cooked up and smuggled into the fairy kingdom, leading to all kinds of miscommunication and magical malarkey.
The film was animated by Lucas’ VFX house, Industrial Light & Magic, and stands as their first fully animated feature since their 2011 debut, Rango. The appearances of the Bog King and his cronies recall the fascinatingly grotesque production design of that film, but if that were the only animated film Strange Magic reminds you of, then it might have got away with it.
For a film that has an iron-clad unique selling point amid a release schedule that includes Inside Out, Minions and other, more successful fare, it’s shocking how derivative the story turns out to be. The Shakespearean cues, which specifically come from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming Of The Shrew, are part and parcel of all storytelling by now, but it owes lots of creative debts to Disney’s Beauty & The Beast and Aladdin, DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 and, on a visual level, Blue Sky Studios’ Epic.
Lucas’ stories have always cobbled together classical story tropes, with both Star Wars and Indiana Jones drawing inspiration from the sci-fi and fantasy serials that he grew up with, but without the buoying of unique production design or strong performances and characters, it becomes trite and predictable with its moralising about inner beauty. It may land with younger girls, but most 12 year olds will have seen too many films for this to be particularly resonant.
On the other hand, the musical aspect may provide some surprises to this audience. The film was originally conceived as a rock opera, but for the story’s sake, Lucas, Rydstrom and fellow screenwriters Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum added dialogue during the development of the script. It’s just as well, because the song book is a rather bizarre mash-up of tones and genres that might have been harder to sustain for a whole feature.
“Obviously for me I wanted to have the music that I liked, not music that someone else liked,” said Lucas of the soundtrack. Some jukebox musicals just hang on by the skin of their teeth when they’re drawings songs from just one band or genre, but the transitions between classic rock and contemporary pop is enough to give you whiplash.
Still, there are highlights – the use of I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) as an incessant and hyperactive serenade from someone under the influence of the love potion makes for some funny moments, and the recurring ‘rah rah’ motif from Bad Romance as the standard for a marching army is both subtle and probably very expensive.
Elswhere, the title track (originally by ELO) is sung by two characters having their Whole New World moment, but outside of these canny choices, the characters’ bursts of song often seem to be dictated in the order of a personal music playlist on shuffle. And so, you’re unlikely to come out of this thinking that the songs of Elvis Costello and Kelly Clarkson are two great sounds that sound great together.
But as we said, the very worst we could say about it is that it’s a noble and well-intentioned failure. It’s interestingly designed, sumptuously animated and the songs, though ill-fitting, are usually executed well. The voice work is unimpeachable, particularly from Cumming, who is subtle and distinctive enough in his performance as a Scottish-accented grotesque that it takes you a while before you catch onto that other animated character with whom the Bog King shares some personality traits.
Strange Magic is far too familiar to sing its own song and it doesn’t quite hang together in a way that will please its target audience, but for a company that’s about to ramp up production on its most famous franchise in a big bad way, it’s a satisfactory effort and worth commending for at least a little more than just good intentions.
It’s far stranger than it is magical and perhaps it will achieve cult status for that in years to come. However, we doubt that it’ll be a new family favourite.
Strange Magic is in UK cinemas now.
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