Strange Magic

Imagine if James Cameron produced an episode of American Idol. Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth and Alfred Molina lend their voices to Strange Magic.

Strange MagicCast of Characters:
Marianne – voiced by Evan Rachel Wood
The Bog King – voiced by Alan Cumming
The Sugar Plum Fairy – voiced by Kristin Chenoweth
The Fairy King – voiced by Alfred Molina
Griselda – voiced by Maya Rudolph
Sunny – voiced by Elijah Kelley
Dawn – voiced by Meredith Anne Bull
Roland – voiced by Sam Palladio

Director – Gary Rydstrom
Screenplay – David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi & Gary Rydstrom
Producer – Mark S. Miller, Kevin Munroe & Sarah McArthur
Rated PG for some action and scary images

Marianne (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), heir to the throne of the Fairy Kingdom, is about to marry the man of her dreams, Roland (voiced by Sam Palladio), until she finds him kissing another fairy girl. Devastated by his betrayal, Marianne calls off the wedding and vows to never love again.

Desperate to win Marianne back, Roland convinces an Elf named Sunny (voiced by Elijah Kelley) to venture into the dreaded Dark Forest, ruled by the evil Bog King (voiced by Alan Cumming) to find the love potion that was concocted by the long lost Sugar Plum Fairy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth).

Inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Strange Magic comes from a story conceived by George Lucas that got underway on production prior to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in late 2012. With his baby, Star Wars, now out of the picture and adopted by the Mickey Mouse Club, George has to keep busy somehow. How ’bout a jukebox musical version of a Shakespeare play that looks a bit similar to 2012’s Epic?

What Strange Magic definitely excels at is in the animation. This is, no question, a beautiful film to look at. The backgrounds are crafted with such exquisite detail from the twisted environment of the Dark Forest, the bright and cheery Fairy Kingdom, to even minute details such as the seed heads of a dandelion. Even though the character design, which looks a little too human-ish than it needs to be, takes some getting used to, this is animation of the highest quality.

It’s such a shame that everything else in this film is garbage.

One of the main problems with Strange Magic is that the story is so thin it makes Karen Carpenter look like Mama Cass. I get this is supposed to be a musical, but even the so-so average musicals have some meat to their plot. This is a 90-minute rundown of celebrities doing “open mic night at the bar” versions of Lucas’s favorite songs from his iPod. In an effort to tie the songs together, Lucas and his team of screenwriters – David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi & Gary Rydstrom (a seven-time Oscar-winner for sound editing who also directs here) – throw in some cheaply constructed story that centers around a mysterious love potion, a badass heroine (whose appearance owes Crysta from Fern Gully a thank you), her very annoying sister, her father who looks quite a bit like George Lucas (which no one would even be mentioning if it wasn’t for the fact that his name his smacked all over the marketing posters) and a lackluster villain whose motives have something to do with how hideous he is. Then, in the end, we get the “speech” about how judging someone based on their looks is wrong and something more about true love and, whatever. I guess kids are supposed to learn something or some crap like that.

Yay. Cue the NBC shooting star, I guess.

Most of the voice performers turn in serviceable work, but the characters they’re portraying lack the heart and soul that have made the best animated characters standout. Evan Rachel Wood gives Marianne some feisty pep that makes her a little likeable, while on the flip side, Meredith Anne Bull’s Dawn is as grating as nails on a chalkboard (she’s given some company from Sam Palladio’s hokey Elvis impression), particularly when she’s overcome by the love potion and can’t stop breaking out into the Four Tops hit I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch). It’s enough to compel you to repeatedly bang your head against a brick wall in order to distract you from the song running constantly through your mind.

Or give you enough brain damage-induced memory loss to where you simply forget it.

Of all the voice performances, though, the most peculiar is Maya Rudolph as the Bog King’s mother. I understand a little leeway in terms of realism can be provided for fantasy. I mean, if Mark Hamill’s pasty white Luke Skywalker had a deep-voiced black man for his father, I guess anything’s possible. That said, even for animated fantasy standards, you can’t help but wonder how a tall, slender cockroach with a Scottish accent came into this world by way of a small, pudgy slug who talks with such a kvetch-y Jewish mother tone, she might as well have been named Estelle Costanza.

What ultimately kills this film isn’t the lazy story (which Lucas described as Star Wars for 12-year-old girls… okay), or the flat characters; it’s the music. It’s downright atrocious and staged in such obvious form it brings the film to a jarring halt any time someone decides to open up their mouth and sing. It’s one thing to have musical numbers that aren’t memorable, but Strange Magic’s soundtrack takes unmemorable to the next level with its uninspired renditions of hit songs that combine a little bit of nostalgia (ELO, Elvis, The Doors, Deep Purple, Bob Marley) with some of the new (Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Lady Gaga). Even worse is how on the nose these songs are. This would make Baz Luhrmann and Robert Zemeckis (a filmmaker whose work I love, but still won’t deny that’s a hallmark of his films) wince.

  • Marianne’s spurned by her cheating lover? Cue “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”.
  • Marianne confronts her ex? Cue “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”.
  • Entering the eery world of the Dark Forest? Cue “People Are Strange”.
  • Climactic duel between the heroine and villain? Cue “Straight On”.

You expect to find musical drivel like this on a Now That’s What I Call Music! karaoke CD, not a feature-length movie from Lucasfilm.

While it boasts some of the most vibrant and detailed animation to hit the screen these days, Strange Magic‘s first-rate technical work is wasted by a hackneyed story and an awfully forgettable lineup of musical numbers. For a story that comes from the mind of the man that gave us two of the most successful franchises in film history, this is a bland, lifeless, albeit pretty looking, mess.

I give Strange Magic a D (★).


1/26/15        What the Hell Were They Thinking?!
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