A film review by Craig J. Koban February 13, 2015


2015, PG, 99 mins.


Alan Cumming as Bog King (voice)  /  Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne (voice)  /  Kristin Chenoweth as Sugar Plum Fairy (voice)  /  Maya Rudolph as Griselda (voice)  /  Sam Palladio as Roland (voice)  /  Elijah Kelley as Sunny (voice)

Directed by Gary Rydstrom  /  Written by Rydstrom, David Berenbaum, and Irene Mecchi, based on a story by George Lucas

STRANGE MAGIC is the latest creative endeavor from George Lucas, which despite its outward façade as a fantasy, it could not be anymore different than what the flannel shirted one has attempted before: a computer animated jukebox musical featuring classic rock and pop tunes from the last several decades.  

Drawing loose inspiration from Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM, STRANGE MAGIC – conceived and produced by Lucas and co-written and directed by Gary Rydstrom, the multiple Oscar winning sound designer that worked with Lucas on the STAR WARS films – borrows the love potion plot device from the Bard and spins its own tale of romance and mischief in an enchanted fairy tale land.  If anything, the film deserves points for ambitiousness. 

Where Lucas and Rydstrom fail, though, is in the execution of their wonderful ideas present here in the film.  STRANGE MAGIC has a sense of effervescent fun throughout and the song numbers from the spirited and game voice actors hit their intended marks, but the film overall seems regurgitated from the spare parts of other better screen fantasies and musicals.  There’s also a highly odd mixture of divergent elements and tones on display here, which sort of subverts our willingness to completely allow ourselves to become enraptured in it.  It’s also not made abundantly clear what audience STRANGE MAGIC is actually engineered for: I can certainly see young girls liking it, but the song catalogue – all chosen by Lucas that spans over sixty years – will only be appreciated by older adults in the audience familiar with them.  Great family films find a manner of appeasing both young and old viewers alike, but there’s a bizarre disconnect created here that frustratingly blurs the line. 



What Lucas is strong at is world building, and STRANGE MAGIC certainly looks fantastic on a level of art design, replete with beautiful fairies, mischievous elves, manipulating goblins, and a grotesque menagerie of creatures.  We are quickly introduced to Lucas’ new movie fantasyland that involves two specific kingdoms, one a land of fairies and the other a dark and decrepit land of darkness and evil (granted, on the border of the dark and light realms exists flowers that can be cultivated to create love potions powerful enough to work on anyone or anything).  One winged fairy, Marianne (voiced with spunk by Evan Rachel Wood) is set to marry the love of her life in Roland (Sam Palladio) and lives her days in a carefree state of jubilation.  Of course, when she sees her man kissing another fairy, her once hopes for a happily ever after marriage to him is immediately stunted. 

Predictably, Marianne calls off the marriage and grows bitter and reclusive.  Concurrent to this is the plight of her sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), who longs – like her sibling once did – to fall in love with a hunky male suitor.  What she doesn’t know is that her BFF in Sunny (Elijah Kelley) secretly has been pining for her for years, but fears that she would never reciprocate back.  Sunny concocts a plan to make a love potion, which is stymied by the kidnapping of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristen Chenoweth) in the Dark Forrest (only she knows how to correctly make the proper potion formula).  Sunny and Roland decided to journey into the Dark Forrest to secure their potion, but during such time Dawn finds herself captured by the vile Bog King (Alan Cumming) and – wouldn’t ya know it! – is accidentally hit by the love potion, making her fall instantly in love with the boil and blister covered ruler.  With Roland taking his army into the Dark Forrest to save Dawn (and action that could lead to war), Marianne springs into action to confront the King herself. 

Considering the relative and repetitive sameness that permeates so many studio animated films these days, I will give props to STRANGE MAGIC for at least being willing to go against the creative grain.  Unlike most other genre efforts, this film is crammed with wall-to-wall songs and music, which helps give it a propulsive and engaging forward momentum.  Classic hits as far ranging as ‘Crazy in Love” to “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to, yes, “Strange Magic" are belted out by the cast with dutiful enthusiasm, and there’s even some non-vocal, melody-only covers of iconic songs by The Doors and other eclectic groups.  Although the animation in the film is not quite up to the upper echelons of superlative quality that Pixar and Dreamworks have been churning out for years, STRANGE MAGIC still looks slick and lovely throughout, with richly detailed textures and a strong emphasis on environmental minutiae.  Amazingly, Lucas and company resisted the urge to release the film in 3D, which is both welcome and refreshing. 

For as much as I loved the songs in STRANGE MAGIC – what’s there not to love here? – and the feisty and freewheeling level of audacious invention that’s on screen, STRANGE MAGIC feels somewhat overpadded with too many ideas, too many characters, and too many conflicting ideas and story elements.  For the most part, STRANGE MAGIC has the feel of a film at the early inception phase of development and lacking further script re-writes and refinements to fully come off as a finished product.  You can sense the passion of Lucas and Rydstrom at the helm, but what’s missing is creative discipline to help lean the film away from its own inherent unevenness.  I can’t quite label the underlining story as completely and slavishly derivative, seeing as fairy tales have been liberally borrow from each other for ages.  No, the real issue with STRANGE MAGIC is concocting some sort of connective tissue to make of all its ideas coalesce smoothly together.  Even the wonderful toe-tapping songs on display, for instance, don’t seem to mesh together to create a meaningful whole as well as they should have.   

There are noble-minded themes to be had in STRANGE MAGIC in terms of not judging a book by its cover, discovering the inner beauty of someone else, and finding love in – ahem! – strange places, but the narrative itself really browbeats and overtly telegraphs itself in the least subtle manner possible (you just know that the repellent Bog King is really just a mushy softy on the inside that wants to love and be loved back).  In the end, I left STRANGE MAGIC admiring it modest dosages, but can’t wholeheartedly say that it stayed with me at all hours after screening it.  You can see the broad influences that Lucas and Rydstrom are trying to homogenize together, but their resulting animated musical lacks symmetry and balance.  There’s a lot thrown up on screen here that the makers clearly hoped would stick.  Alas, considering that this film was on Lucas’ mind from as far back as the production of the STAR WARS prequels you’d assume that he and his creative team would have had more than ample time to more satisfyingly flesh out STRANGE MAGIC. 

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