REVIEW: Strange Magic (2015)

In a magical realm divided between darkness and light, the fairy princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) prepares to marry the dashing captain Roland. When he cheats on her she swears off love for good – an opinion shared by the dark forest’s villainous Bog King (Alan Cumming). When a pining elf sneaks into the dark forest to gain a love potion, both Marianne and the Bog King find themselves headed for mutual disaster.

Strange Magic is a computer-animated musical film released in 2015. It was the very first Lucasfilm production to be released by Disney following their 2012 purchase of the company, as well as the first Lucasfilm production not related to Star Wars or Indiana Jones since 1994’s The Radioland Murders. Its story was written by George Lucas, and it marked the feature directing debut of seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom (Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, and many more). The film’s relative obscurity is something of a giveaway as to its quality: Strange Magic is bizarrely terrible.

The problems with the film are essentially fourfold: firstly there is the design, which feels weirdly bland and featureless. The animation itself, which was mostly produced by visual effects titan Industrial Light & Magic, is stunningly executed. The design work that underpins it feels sadly generic and undercooked. Weakly developed green goblins and the like populate the dark forest, while oddly skinny puppy-eyed fairies populate their brighter kingdom. When characters emote, they undertake same kind of bland half-smiles and snarky ‘attitude’ seen in the less effective Dreamworks Animation productions. There is no particular originality at work here, merely retreads of over-worn cliches.

The film’s pacing and focus feel out as well, with events running in a largely episodic fashion and with no clear narrative through-line tying the scenes together. The first act feels dreadfully underdeveloped, to such a degree that the remainder of the film is running to catch up. The two rival kingdoms are never particularly well defined either, leaving the cast to vaguely snark and snap at one another without sufficient depth, background, or motivation. The character work in particular feels weak, with no one getting any distinctive features against other characters. It even incorporates Lucas’ weird penchant for ‘evil’ characters suddenly becoming ‘good’ ones based on a simple change of heart, and being immediately forgiven for all prior misdeeds as a result (see Darth Vader or Willow‘s Sorsha – and Disney is continuing the trope with their Star Wars sequels).

Most egregious of all is the film’s dreadful take on music. Technically it is a musical, with characters constantly breaking into popular love songs including “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, “I Can’t Help Myself”, and numerous others. The performances are generally charmless, and certainly throwaway in nature, but what is worse is that they are all bizarrely short. Most numbers barely last a minute, if that, and often come after one another so thick and fast that it soon becomes a chore to sit through them.

There are moments in the film that do work, and a loose charm is visible now and then between the cracks, but overall Strange Magic feels half-hearted and creatively lazy. It is technically based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but all that remains of the play is essentially a character being fed a love potion to comedic effect. A modicum of fidelity would have done absolute wonders for the storyline, and given the film a little more of a reason to exist. As it stands, this is the sort of project for which the term ‘colossal misfire’ seems purposefully coined. It was clearly an inconvenience to Disney, whose careful management of their animation brand saw them dump the film in a late January graveyard and release it under their largely defunct Touchstone Pictures label. In effect, they buried a film they never wanted in the first place simply to get it out of the way. That was a smart move on their part.

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