Strange Magic (2015) – Film Review

After selling Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company in late 2012, writer and director George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope) turned his attention away from the mega franchises of: ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ to produce many of his long-gestating passion projects. This ambitious new turn began with the war epic: ‘Red Tails’ in 2012, and soon after, ‘Strange Magic’ in 2015, an animated fantasy-musical that Lucas had long wanted to produce for his three daughters, having written an early draft of the story fifteen years earlier. Upon its eventual release, however, ‘Strange Magic’ was deemed a colossal failure, earning only £9 million at the box-office on a budget of approximately £74 million, along with receiving largely negative reviews from critics and audiences alike due to its predictable story, dreadful humour and bizarre song choices, all of which I feel are valid criticisms when looking at what the film was trying to accomplish.

Plot Summary: In a mystical woodland realm where primrose flowers mark the border between two regions: the ‘Fairy Kingdom’ and the ‘Dark Forest.’ The undesirable ‘Bog King’ rules over his gloomy domain without love, going so far as to imprison the ‘Sugar Plum Fairy,’ who is capable of mixing love potions through the use of primroses, in a bid to permanently cease adoration across his domain…

Technically the first Lucasfilm production to be distributed by The Walt Disney Company following the acquisition. The story of: ‘Strange Magic’ is predominantly based on William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ as both narratives are romantic-comedies that involve misunderstandings and cross-purposes between different races, or, in this case, species. The film also takes inspiration from many well-known fairy-tales including: ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for its central underlining theme, which focuses on the idea that beauty is only skin deep and internal beauty is far more meaningful, an important message for children, to be sure. But as a result of this theme being delivered with zero charm or subtlety, the message itself comes across as incredibly forced and even somewhat contradictory thanks to some of the screenplay’s ill-timed gags.

The main voice cast of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Sam Palladio and Meredith Anne Bull all do a sufficient job at lending some personality to their respective characters, especially since ‘Strange Magic’ supplies very little in the way of characterisation, with a majority of the animated individuals only being set apart from one another by what species they are, e.g. a fairy, elf or goblin etc. Quite unfortunate, as for many characters, there is a solid foundation alluding to what they could’ve been should they have been further developed. For example, ‘Marianne’ (the closet thing the story has to a protagonist), becomes distrustful of men once she witnesses her fiancée: ‘Roland,’ cheating on her on the day of their wedding, quickly vowing to never love again and instead dedicate her life to protecting her family, specifically her sister: ‘Dawn,’ who supposedly falls in love with every man she meets.

Aside from the flavourless designs of the fairies, which appear as if they’ve been yanked from any generic fantasy flick of the early 2000s. The visuals of: ‘Strange Magic’ are by far the film’s finest component, with nearly every shot retaining plenty of colour and ingenuity on account of the animated cinematography and the animation itself, which exhibits even the smallest of details right down to the threads on characters’ clothing or the patches of watery moss within the ‘Dark Forest.’ Yet this isn’t too surprising considering that ‘Strange Magic’ was animated by Lucas’ famed visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, standing as their first fully animated feature since their debut with ‘Rango’ in 2011.

Moving from the visuals to the audio, ‘Strange Magic’ is what’s known as a jukebox musical, meaning that rather than creating original songs for the film, all of the songs heard throughout the runtime are popular songs from past decades. From ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ to ‘Love is Strange’ and ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),’ the film’s continuous use of on-the-nose song choices is undoubtedly what’ll make or break ‘Strange Magic’ for most, as older audiences may feel as if they are being pandered to, whilst young audience members will simply be confused as to why none of the song lyrics directly relate to any of the characters/plot points within the film. Furthermore, the original score by Marius De Vries (in what few scenes it’s actually utilised) is barely distinguishable from any other animated flick.

On a separate note, although the first entry in the ‘Star Wars’ saga rarely lacked in world-building when it first introduced audiences to a galaxy far, far away. ‘Strange Magic’ seems to actively avoid developing its world beyond one or two throwaway lines, only establishing the two regions that reside side-by-side; the unimaginatively named: ‘Fairy Kingdom’ and ‘Dark Forest,’ and not much else as to the way this fantastical world functions.

All in all, ‘Strange Magic’ is a film that feels far too familiar to sing its own tune, with its derivative story coming across as a hodgepodge of well-worn elements from other animated and fantasy films, most evidently 2013’s ‘Epic’ and the everlasting series of animated feature-length ‘Tinker Bell’ films. And, as such, there’s virtually nothing about this fractured fairy-tale that feels remotely fresh aside from some of its attractive visuals. There are enjoyable moments, of course, but, for the most part, ‘Strange Magic’ is simply half-hearted and creatively lazy. Final Rating: high 3/10.

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