When Disney purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas back in 2012, they were mostly in it for “Star Wars,” a property that the company knew it could exploit and synergize and spin-off with the kind of aplomb that only Disney can muster. But there was something else in that deal that they weren’t entirely sure of: “Strange Magic,” a computer-animated fairy tale that had been a passion project of Lucas’ for more than a decade and was being developed in earnest as the company was purchased. Now the project feels like a Skywalker orphan, left to fend for itself on the desolate planet known as Late January. It’s a complicated, uneven film, equal parts bewitching and repellant, and it should command an almost instantaneous cult audience due to its trippy visuals and jukebox musical soundtrack. Even if it doesn’t totally work, it’s hard not have a kind of begrudging admiration for its weirdness.
Inspired, in part, by William Shakespeare‘s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and possessing the same general feeling of some of the more fucked-up kids’ movies from the ’70s and ’80s (things like Jim Henson‘s “Labyrinth” and Disney’s infamous “The Black Cauldron“), “Strange Magic” is set in a mythical land of fairies, trolls, and imps. The fairies, who are all handsome and upbeat, are led by a king (Alfred Molina), who has two daughters, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). Marianne, having been slighted by egotistical rube named Roland (Sam Pallido), becomes aggressively independent and resentful of men, while the younger, more dewy-eyed Dawn is still on the hunt for a suitor. (Roland, meanwhile, just wants to marry Marianne so he can control the kingdom’s vast army… or something.)
The darker side of the forest is ruled over by the scaly Bog King (Alan Cumming), whose mother (Maya Rudolph) is desperate for him to take a queen, but who has been burned by a genie-like fairy (Kristin Chenoweth), who long-ago attempted to use a love potion (the results were so disastrous all the characters refer to it ominously as “that fateful day”). The plot is insanely complicated for such a short (99 minutes), weightless enterprise, but it involves kidnapping and warring creatures and real love being forged while fake, magically enhanced love springs up all over the place. The message is simple: beauty is only skin deep and connections that aren’t so superficial tend to last a whole lot longer. This is a great message for kids, for sure, but one that is packaged inside one of the more insane mainstream animated films I’ve come across, maybe ever.
“Strange Magic” is, first and foremost, a jukebox musical, which is something that has barely been hinted at in the film’s marketing materials. (It’s named after the Electric Light Orchestra song of the same name, one that gets its own, fairly involved musical sequence.) There is a lot of singing; it’s virtually nonstop. And it’s like “Moulin Rouge” where there are scraps of different songs reassembled for a single moment, pulling from some golden oldies, as well as more recent fare (like Kelly Clarkson‘s “Stronger”). This approach is, at first, exhilarating—there is a singularly enchanting way that the songs are recombined and belted out by all manner of fairy tale creature. But then it goes on and on, and there is so much that it becomes grating and, finally, exasperating. The songs occasionally stop the momentum of movie dead in its tracks (and, honestly, there’s not that much momentum to begin with), and with some judicious editorial work, these numbers could have been way more impactful. Thankfully, the movie ends in a clever way, and the numbers once again become an asset instead of a liability.
More troubling is the movie’s gender politics, which place the strength, independence, and determination of Marianne as a product of her relationship (or not) with a man. It’s great that she’s a strong character, and there’s a terrific montage where she gets suited up into a kind of S&M fairy ensemble, with whatever the bedtime story equivalent of black leather and knee pads is, but you don’t get the impression that she would have ever called upon this well of strength had she not treated poorly previously. (In “Frozen,” Elsa and Anna’s tenacity and empowerment is always there and it’s a personal journey that unlocks those powers from within.) It’s great that she’s tough and independent, but it comes at the expense of richer character development and sets a troubling precedent for young girls because it seems to suggest that you can only become a strong woman by hating all men.
Otherwise, “Strange Magic” does manage to enchant you (mostly) with its oddball charm. The animation, done by effects house Industrial Light & Magic, is tactile and eventually gives way to full-on psychedelia (gentle psychedelia, but psychedelia none-the-less). There’s even a moment when the frame becomes a literal kaleidoscope. It’s trippy, man. The film was directed by Gary Rydstrom, one of the all-time great sound designers and a former Pixar director (he helped a couple of wonderful short films and was in the captain’s chair for their failed “Newt” project), who certainly knows how to deliver a punch-line and make the characters pop. It makes sense, too, that with his background in sound, he would be called upon to make the mélange of pop songs work. It does… to a degree. “Strange Magic” is messy and uneven and occasionally annoying, but it also dares to be different. If the movie’s central thematic concern is acceptance and loving of things that might be a little weird or off or ugly, then by that measure we outright love “Strange Magic.” Instead, it’s a movie that’s easier to appreciate and admire than to actually swoon over. Not bad for an orphan. [B-]