George Lucas has always viewed himself an old fashioned filmmaker. In various interviews, he’s stated how he intended Star Wars to be more of an upbeat adventure of traditional archetypes and wondrous stories. That certainly seems to have been his intentions when he wrote the story of Strange Magic, a fantasy tale that relies more on character and music than epic battles or grand special effects. It’s also a rather noble effort given that he essentially wanted to create an animated adventure for girls – specifically for his three daughters. That’s all well and good, but whatever magic there was on the page did not translate well into animation.
The story is at least there with some fresh elements to a familiar mixture. It’s the old good versus evil for the micro world of fairies and bugs. We’ve got our bright territory of a fairy kingdom and the dark region of dirty swamp creatures. On the fairy side, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is a princess who is excited to finally be married to a prince. Her fairy tale life is cut short, however, when she discovers her pompous fiance Roland (Sam Palladio) is seeing another woman. Betrayed, she swears off love and becomes a fairy warrior. Gone are her flowing dresses and garlands – replaced with armor and swords to match her new sass. Thankfully, this is not seen as a descent into a darker path of battle, but a lifestyle change that allows her to express herself more openly for her true love.
As Roland and a smitten gnome Sunny conspire to obtain a love potion for their women, the evil Bog King (Alan Cummings) takes note of their efforts when they steal the potion from his prisoner, the Sugar Plum Fairy. After much screaming and growling, the King makes his move by taking hostage the beautiful fairy Dawn. It’s up to Marianne to become the hero that saves her best friend. The only major problem is the love potion has now complicated the quest and transformed the story into a bizarre love triangle – branching out to the point where it is more of a love hexagon.
Hardly any of the fun that was intended from such a story is lost when transitioning into an animated feature. As with any animated film, the initial element any viewer would notice not firing on all cylinders is the visual aspect. The computer graphics themselves are not too shabby, but the character designs just reeks of a student reel or tutorial demos. Maybe I’ve just seen too many computer generated fantasy creatures from shorts and video games, but generic is the one word that comes to mind when I see the stringy Bog King or the elf-faced Marianne. It’s a big let down considering how director Gary Rydstrom wanted the film to look beautiful. In terms of environments, he certainly hit the mark, but I wish he’d taken some extra time to fill this forest with more than ho-hum characters.
Rydstrom’s background is mostly as a sound designer for various animated films, notably on the works of Pixar. This is rather astounding given how he approaches the heavy musical aspect of this picture. Rather than go for some original songs, the soundtrack is wall-to-wall covers of popular songs including “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Love is Strange.” So much notable music is inserted that the crew just barely turned the film into an opera. None of these numbers are that notable from the soundtrack, however, since there isn’t much of a unique take on any of them. And if you’re going to use that much copyrighted music, you better be doing something grand with that material with exceptional singing voices or striking visuals to set it against.
What’s most distressing about Strange Magic is the same problems with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels: a lack of consistent tone. Even when not directing, Lucas’ shatter-shot influence is all over this film. One moment it is attempting to be a whimsical romance, the next it’s a manic musical of fairies pretending to play guitars like rock stars. Perhaps Gary Rydstrom keeps the numbers and quips coming at you in rapid fire that you won’t take note of the shortcomings in the design or the inconsistencies in mood. Strange Magic may have its heart in the right place for a fantasy story built for a young female audience, but it lacks that extra depth in direction to make it sing and rise above just being a pretty picture.
Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk