A Cute but Derivative Bit of Magic
Review by Daniel Rester
Strange Magic is an animated musical fantasy film based on a story from George Lucas that he started about 15 years ago – which in turn has elements related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. The film does have a bit of a Lucas touch, but it was actually written by David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, and Gary Rydstrom and directed by Rydstrom as well. As shown with other projects in recent years, having that “Lucas touch” is more of a mixed bag now rather than showcasing the real magic of Lucas from the 1970s and 1980s.
Rydstrom’s film tells of two sides of a forest, the light side and the dark. Sound familiar? Anyways, on the light side are elves, fairies, squirrels, and more; while on the dark side are goblins, lizards, and imps. Two of the fairy sisters are Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), with the former being independent and the latter more of a flirtatious type.
A hopeless elf named Sunny (Elijah Kelley) is in love with Dawn, while a fairy named Roland (Sam Palladio) wants to marry Marianne – a princess – just so he can have an army. This leads Roland to set up Sunny, sending him into the dark lair of the Bog King (Alan Cumming) to have the captured Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) make a love potion. Things don’t go as planned, and Marianne and others must launch a rescue mission after someone is taken by the Bog King.
Magic deals with the idea of love versus infatuation while its characters sing famous pop songs with lyrics related to the going-ons in the story. The decades-ranging soundtrack includes covers of such hits as “Three Little Birds” (Bob Marley and the Wailers), “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (Whitney Houston), and “Straight On” (Heart). The cast sings quite well, but the use of the pop songs is a bit distracting and repetitive at times – and some singing moments grind the story momentum to a halt. Still, only a true curmudgeon won’t get a kick out of at least some of the song uses.
The music and sound editing and mixing is ace, which is to be expected from a team behind Rydstrom – who has won seven Oscars over the years for various sound categories but is making his directorial debut with Magic. The background designs of the film are also impeccable and full of color, and many of the creatures populating the areas shine as well. The only fault on a technical level is with some of the designs of the fairy and elf characters; Marianne, Dawn and some of the others have odd almost-human features that stick them in the Uncanny Valley.
Where Magic loses most of its footing is with the story, characters, and dialogue. The main story follows an okay everyone-falls-in-love situation, but it’s the execution and predictability that knocks it down. The song placement story-wise feels forced after a little while, many of the supporting characters are hair-pulling annoying (especially the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Bog King’s mother), and a myriad amount of the dialogue has characters stating obvious jokes after certain occurrences happen. It doesn’t help that everything is in-your-face loud as well, with the film leaving little room for subtle moments.
It is nice to see a strong female lead character in Marianne and a likable villain in the Bog King, but so much surrounding them feels derivative. Only the adorable Imp (Brenda Chapman) comes across well instead of just tolerable in the supporting character category. The cast itself has quite a few good vocal performances (especially Cumming), but most of the actors don’t have much fresh material to play around with.
Magic isn’t horrible kiddie fare, but it isn’t very remarkable either. The beautiful backdrops, fun music, and charming vocal performances help to keep it somewhat alive. Young kids will eat it up, but adults will more likely just find it to be passable while wondering when the next Pixar gem is coming along.
My Score: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: C+).
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action and scary images).
Runtime: 1 hour and 39 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: January 23rd, 2014.