Animated Anarchy steps in for the Unusual Suspects reviewing the first major flop of the year, courtesy of Lucasfilm Animation! Someone call up the military, because I want to re-enforce the Scorched Earth Policy!
Strange Magic is touted as the newest film of George Lucas, who wanted to create a new film series for little girls including his three daughters with love, swords, faeries, and high fantasy. He has stated the movie is “Star Wars for little girls” taking the idea of Beauty & The Beast where the Beast doesn’t change and giving it a backdrop of Shakespeare’s legendary comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are several familiar elements at play here, as the plot also takes many directions from Labyrinth, and has a style very familiar to Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Epic from 2 years ago.
Now before I riff into movie, I want to address something straight. George Lucas is only the executive producer who created the initial story for what the movie would be based on. There’s actually an exceptional amount of behind-the-scenes talent here. Gary Rydstrom, who is primarily a sound designer, directed some Pixar shorts and handled the English dubbing on Ghibli films such as The Secret World of Arrietty. He is also a co-writer, along with Irene Mecchi (The Lion King, Brave, Hercules, Hunchback of Norte Dame) and David Barenbaum, who’s resume is more cringe-inducing than promising. (Spiderwick Chronicles, Zoom, The Haunted Mansion)
I’m not one for automatically assuming the biggest name on the project is immediately the cause for all its problems. I already see it too much with Michael Bay being blamed for 2014’s TMNT or Christopher Nolan being blamed for Man of Steel because the people were trying to ape their styles. That’s like saying Transformers is Stephen Spielberg’s fault for being an executive producer. There’s so much to blame here from the writing, to directing, voice acting, and overwhelming amount of songs played that everyone had to be not trying or failing exponentially.
But I will go on record saying that after seeing this movie, I would happily watch any movie from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy instead of Strange Magic again.
This movie was a gigantic test on my film-reviewing psyche. At first, I was only mildly annoyed at the film for being overly familiar and playing too many songs rather than have character development. Thirty minutes in, the plot gets so insipid and the characters get so obnoxious, that I can only like two things: The admittedly gorgeous, if behind-the-times CGI, and Evan Rachel Wood as the protagonist. At the hour point, I was gritting my teeth and determined to storm out once the movie had ended. I don’t know how animated movies that are made in such a slapdash, straight-to-Redbox manner can make it to 3000 theaters over the weekend.
Strange Magic is wretched. It’s a trite, frustrating strain on even the most discerning animation fan’s patience with it’s manic, zany pacing, horribly written characters, and mind-grating use of love songs as a jukebox musical. You might have seen cartoons that overemphasize the importance of love and magic, but Strange Magic comments on romance and music every single freaking minute. This wasn’t just hammering the point in; this was being smashed with the fire extinguisher from Irreversible levels of agony.
The movie begins with the fairy princess Marianne, voiced by Evan Rachel Wood, is in love with the handsome Roland, but ends her wedding by seeing his infidelity right before the ceremony. As she vows never to love again, she must reject the advances of Roland while the kingdom from the evil, looming forces of the dark forest. Meanwhile, a lowly, “friend-zoned” elf named Sunny wants to craft a love potion with the imprisoned sugarplum fairy to help Dawn, the younger princess of the king. This offends the Bog King who wishes to destroy the fairies as well as all forms of romance as the potion gets lost between all the parties, playing off as a bizarre comedy of errors with maligned motivations and misinformation.
This film fails on so many jaw-dropping levels. The plot is painfully thin and so obviously ripped off better material. Considering the amount of technical talent who work on the movie, I would have imagined the Lucasfilms could have shelled out for a better voice cast. These are third-tier level actors delivering abhorrent performances, where so often you’ll hear a voice and go “That’s like a terrible Brendan Frasier” or “bad version of Jaleel White” or “bottom-barrel Brad Garrett.”
Alan Cummings gets top billing in the film as the so-called tragic Bog King, who is constantly undercut as a threatening villain by limply tolerating every conflict that comes his way. And the way he sings various covers of classic tracks is truly awful, taking up a bizarre, prickly cadence that makes all his numbers feel extra generic or off-putting. Every aspect of his design that might look intimidating fails as the character is so dull, one-dimensional, and nonthreatening. There’s even an extra touch of Jar Jar Binks-level stereotyping there, as his evil speeches are constantly interrupted by his Jewish Goblin Mother who is trying to push new girlfriends on him.
This hurts so much of any possible tension or investment you could have for the story. It’s already hard to give the movie credit as it begins so obviously ripping off so many clichés in the book, introducing our Gaston-like villain. Everyone appears to be fighting over love, falling love, banishing love, and trying to find love but no one actually appears to understand what the hell love is. All the “true love” relationships are so phony because no one in the film actually has a conversation for more than 2 minutes showing general depth. It’s a musical trope to convey your feelings through solos and songs, but it comes off as frustrating here as so much of the drama could be fixed if our main heroine simply explained, “I don’t like him because he cheated on me.”
Jesus Christ, let’s talk about the singing too. There’s never any moment of breathing room because there’s always someone singing or really half-assed attempts of comedy to break flow. Rainbow Rocks didn’t break out in every single scene with bland songs. Strange Magic not only suffers from ignoring the comical, musical nature of the story, but takes it a step further by directly insulting the genre. There are a couple of moments dedicated to pointing out how someone didn’t sing or the love songs are too shrieking to bear, only to start warbling again. One character even looks down at an impish “Puck” type and goes “Well, you’re just a crazy little thing called love, aren’t you” as the Queen song plays in the background. No one in my decently packed audience laughed during the entire movie, including the children.
What the movie fails to understand that this really contrived plot works in the original A Midsummer Night’s Dream because the play acknowledges the nonsensical nature. Trying to play it straight with many of the characters fighting over the love potion and constantly debating over their relationship status makes it schizophrenic in tone. In the same exact scene where someone is about to accept love or turn a new love, something will jump in the way that makes the characters shout: “I love you; but I’m evil!” or “Please tell me the truth! But don’t sing, this isn’t a concert!”
Scenes are so manic and they lack basic transition structure. During the whole movie there’s only one shift between day and night so it makes me wonder…did they had a wedding, two royal balls, a kidnapping, grand heist, and an army battle in one single day? No character has a definitive personality trait because it never can settle on an attitude or it interrupts any possible moment with a song.
What’s even worse that it carries on the misinformed idea that Shakespeare’s plays were romantic, tragedy-stricken love stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pure satirical comedy that divulges in the miscommunications between the sexes and separating the important differences between fantasy and reality. There isn’t an antagonist, nor does it have a major climax intended to make people fight off. Love might be great, but it’s also irrational, hormonal, silly, and even harmful when pushed on someone. Shakespeare may be credited for being the bard, but he was not shameless in criticizing the fanciful nature of plays.
Many stories misinterpret Shakespeare’s works; it being an episodic cliché in to have people re-enact Macbeth or more commonly, Romeo and Juliet. I have seen numerous television shows that proclaim that Romeo and Juliet is the most romantic story of all time. If you look at it simply, it doesn’t come off as a tragedy as two naïve, love-struck teenagers get many people killed by massively changing their lives in only FOUR DAYS. As a tragedy, that’s a soap opera. But as a comedy, which Shakespeare was more experienced at, that idea is hysterical because it’s so grim and makes fun of what happens when you fall in Love At First Sight.
The more I thought about how this movie was stressing the importance of love being everyone’s motivation the more it infuriated me. This movie is actually harmful for little girls in the long run by perpetuating that old chestnut of an idea that love matters more than anything else in the world. I don’t mean that in a cynical kind of way, but this movie doesn’t talk about the real, emotional significance of loving someone. Espousing about love at the most superficial, unexplained level without discussion the dangerous is really dangerous for young minds. There aren’t any Star Sapphires around show the more psychotic side of these oh-so-mysterious feelings.
As I thought of what absolutely sucked about this movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gnomeo and Juliet, which is an underrated gem in my opinion. It wears the Shakespeare influence on its sleeve, but adapts the story incredibly well by being an upfront comedy. It understood that the tragic nature of the play doesn’t work for children, but it never talked down to them. The film was even packed to the gills with songs, but concentrating only on the works of Elton John made it focused and more contained. With really charming British actors voicing all the characters and a realistic style that replicates the look and sounds of real garden gnomes, it stands out a superb little movie.
Strange Magic has absolutely no idea what it wants to do or be. Every inch of the way, you are reminded that it is ripping off a more famous movie or source material. Combined that with the nonstop, horribly performed songs and the recycled dialogue made for one of my hardest movie watching experiences yet. And at the end, it tries to push down messages about how love is more than just skin deep and true love conquers all, but it immediately contradicts itself a second later for a joke. (And there are really bad racial implications at the ending about how a fairy can show someone’s true colors, but goes too far dating an Elf.) What an abomination towards art itself.
My Arbitrary Rating for Strange Magic: 1 out of 10 actual uses of the Electric Light Orchestra Song.
Right before Oscar time, Animated Anarchy got hot there for a second. What did you all think? Anyone else see this train wreck of a film? Any thoughts on Shakespeare Adaptations or if Lucas deserves all the blame? Want more full reviews on new Animated Films? Leave me a comment below!
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