Review: Strange Magic, an underrated animated musical from Lucasfilm
Strange Magic was supposed to be George Lucas’ swansong, his final big budget motion picture —as a producer, mind you, not director— before his inevitable retirement from the movie business. Alas, that didn’t quite happen. Strange Magic was released in American theatres with little fanfare, and was a colossal failure at the box office. Despite having a budget of approximately $70-$100 million, the film only managed to gross $13.6 million worldwide, opening at #7 during its first weekend in the States. Needless to say, pretty much nobody saw it.
Critics weren’t any kinder. The film currently has a 16% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its reviews go from bad (“one of the most dismal animations ever released under the Disney umbrella”), to vitriol (“this movie is loathsome”). Even The Mouse House itself didn’t seem to have any confidence in the movie. Its release was stipulated as part of the Lucasfilm acquisition deal, but when it came down to it the company chose to release it through their Touchstone Pictures banner —as if to remove themselves as much as humanly possible from the explosive range of a potential bomb they had on their hands, giving it next to nothing advertising wise. No wonder it was a flop.
Predictably, Strange Magic wasn’t released in many territories, including Peru, my country of residence. Despite all the horrible reviews, though, I was extremely curious about it, so after some deliberation, I finally decided to buy a copy on Blu-ray —and to my surprise, discovered that Disney only released the movie on DVD and Digital HD.
Yup, they cared so little about the film, that they didn’t even manage to release it on the latest physical format available. Ouch.
But I digress. What I assume most readers would want to know, is if the film is any good, or if it really is as terrible as most critics and audiences have said. Funnily enough, my opinion is somewhere in between. Strange Magic, along with 2012’s Red Tails, is one of Lucasfilm’s underseen, underrated and much-maligned films, a perfectly serviceable animated movie that doesn't reinvent the wheel, but manages to entertain thanks to its amazing CGI, fun renditions of classic —and modern— pop songs, and good voice acting. Pixar it ain’t, but it has more value than any of the seemingly endless Ice Age sequels.
I must admit, though, that I’ve always been a fan of the Star Wars franchise —I’m one of the rare critics who enjoy the prequels for what they are— and, by extension, most Lucasfilm productions, so that may explain why I decided to give Strange Magic a chance despite it being such a critical and commercial failure. For all his flaws as a director and screenwriter, I do consider George Lucas to be quite an imaginative producer and world-builder; he always manages to come up with visually arresting images and characters. It’s in more minute aspects, such as dialogue or characterisation, that his weaknesses as a filmmaker come to the surface.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Strange Magic tells the tale of Marianne (voice of Evan Rachel Wood), a wood fairy who lives in a land divided between light and darkness. She’s about to marry Roland (voice of Sam Palladio), an egotistical, air headed fairy knight who doesn’t care about much else beside himself. She quickly discovers, though, that he’s cheating on her with another fairy, so she decides to become a stronger, more serious girl, with little interest in love, much to the surprise of her overweight father, the Fairy King (voice of Alfred Molina).
A couple of years pass, and thanks to the actions of a naive and clumsy elf called Sunny (voice of Elijah Kelley) and Marianne’s sister, happy-go-lucky Dawn (voice of Meredith Anne Bull), she may very well find her equal in the Bog King (voice of the chameleonic Alan Cumming), a seemingly hideous creature with a soft heart and a big secret. Unfortunately, Roland doesn’t see the Bog King and his kind the same way as Marianne, which could result in an unnecessary battle for the control of a powerful Love Potion.
As you may have already noticed, the plot is nothing to write home about, and may well be the film’s weakest point. The story has virtually no surprises, so if you’ve seen any fantasy, animated or Shakespeare-inspired movie from the last ten or twenty years, you’ll probably guess Strange Magic’s ending from the get-go. The movie is charming enough, though, to make up for most of its narrative shortcomings; most audiences —especially kids— will care more about the musical numbers and the action sequences than the movie’s plot.
That's because Strange Magic is, first and foremost, a musical. The soundtrack is mostly comprised of pop songs from the 80s, 90s and even the 2010s, and for the most part, they world beautifully. The vocal work by Wood, Bull, Cumming and the rest of the cast is top-notch, and although some of the lyrics have been changed so they can make more sense in the context of the story, most of the tunes are recognizable enough for them to be enjoyed by both kids and adults. Wood and Cumming’s rendition of Electric Light Orchestra’s Strange Magic (the song that both gives the movie its title, and better represents its main theme) is particularly touching.
Visually, Strange Magic is quite wonderful, although I do get why people might be put off by some of the character designs. The Bog King and his minions all look pretty good, like a mix between roaches and classic fantasy monsters. Environments have a realistic quality to them —especially the plants and the trees and the huge vistas— and everything from lighting to character animations are on a level one would expect from a big-budget American animated film. The fairies and elves do look a little more human that their uglier counterparts, which is why they might fall in the Uncanny Valley for some people.
Strange Magic has a lot to say about not judging people by their appearance, and about the true nature of love. These themes aren’t anything new in the realm of animated features, but at the same time, they represent a nice change of pace from the usual paeans to friendship and family that most Pixar and Dreamworks movies like to transmit. Plus, the message is sent in a very fun, lighthearted and subtle way —one never gets the feeling they’re being hit on the head with a hammer, a mistake many family-oriented motion pictures have made in the past. Unlike more infantile productions, Strange Magic doesn’t underestimate its audience.
There isn’t much more to say about Strange Magic. It’s a simple but well-told story, a visually impressive and fun animated movie, full of lively renditions of famous pop songs and wacky characters. It’s not as emotional and ambitious as a Pixar movie, nor as cutting edge as a Dreamworks production, but it’s entertaining enough as to not disappoint. Why was it destroyed by most other critics? I have no idea; then again, I don’t know why they hated Red Tails so much either.
It’s sad to think about Strange Magic and its eventual fate. A traditional marketing campaign was supposed to have been developed, and both producer Lucas and director Gary Rydstrom were supposed to have plans regarding a sequel, but now we know none of this will come to fruition. Hopefully, Strange Magic will find new life in home video. It definitely deserves it.