Remember when George Lucas said that he was going to move onto making “small, personal films” after the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, and then made ‘Howard the Duck’? Or how about when he said the same thing after the prequel trilogy and then made ‘Red Tails’? Well, he said the exact same thing one more time after selling his Lucasfilm empire to Disney, and now he’s delivered ‘Strange Magic’. If you’ve seen any of the movies I just mentioned, you’ll know that I’m suggesting that this isn’t a “small, personal film,” but actually an embarrassingly misconceived piece of cornball crap.
Maybe that’s what Lucas thinks the term “small, personal film” means at this point. Difficult to say, but hey! At least the guy is consistently disappointing rather than only occasionally breaking the hearts of viewers like myself who still want to believe that he hasn’t lost his marbles.
This time, producer and credited “story” man Lucas hired a gang of talented folks and wasted millions of dollars on his vision of a bedtime fairy tale. Sure, the guy redefined the nature of fantasy filmmaking forever, so I suppose he deserves a crack at fairy tale theater. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference between a hastily compiled bedtime story whispered to a half awake child out of desperation and a worthy movie pitch.
So, here’s the story: It involves fairies and goblins, so please try to keep your eyes focused on the screen no matter how hard it is to keep them from rolling back into your head. There’s this princess fairy who had her heart broken by a jerk on her wedding day, so she immediately starts wearing dark eye shadow and dressing in dark colors and hating love (‘cuz it stinks or whatever). A few years later, her princess sister gets hot to trot and wants love. An elf loves her, but that’s impossible so he sneaks into the goblin king’s lair to steal a love potion from the sugar plum fairy. Then things go wrong and Li’l Miss Princess Loves So Much falls for the goblin king instead due to cruddy magic. So our emo love-hating princess from the beginning has to save her sister and maybe even learn about the power of love while fighting against it. I know. Eww, right? You have no idea.
Yep, it’s a pretty dreadful play on fairy tale fiction that rips off all of the least interesting aspects of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ while leaving out all the art and poetry and imagination. In their place, Lucas, director Gary Rydstrom and a team of writers have inserted a metric ton of songs hoping they’ll make up for the movie’s hollow core. It gets worse. They didn’t even hire talented songwriters or struggle to produce those songs themselves. Instead, they opted for the ‘Moulin Rouge!’ jukebox remix approach, but left out all the irony, humor and pop hit re-imagining of Baz Luhrmann’s greatest brain fart. This is a karaoke soft-pop bastardization of great love songs from the 1950s right up to Beyonce.
I wish I could cite specific examples of which songs were ruined and how, but my brain wouldn’t let me retain that knowledge for even the film’s meager running time. It was as if my brain was so disgusted by how the movie mangled so much classic music that it shoved it all immediately out of my memory so as not to ruin the original songs forever. For that, I am grateful. Thanks, brain. Sorry about all the beer.
Beyond the horrendous soundtrack, ‘Strange Magic’ boasts Lucas’ usual tin ear for dialogue and disregard for compelling characterizations. Granted, this is a fairy tale, so it’s supposed to be composed of archetypes, not people. However, that doesn’t excuse parading out a series of unremarkable and unmemorable characters that not even a voice cast including the likes of Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina and Kristin Chenoweth can make remotely interesting.
Anyone inclined to dismiss Disney’s tired reliance on retelling its old princess yarns every few years need only look at ‘Strange Magic’ to see how much effort Disney actually puts into making the material feel remotely fresh. (In fact, I almost wonder if the studio agreed to release this movie simply to make its own princess blockbusters look good.) The only positive aspect of this abysmal mess is the animation by ILM. It’s hard to be impressed by CGI these days since it’s so ubiquitous, but the animation team here has executed some truly astonishing set-pieces and facial animation. Too bad all of that hard work is wasted on such a dull and uninspired script.
If nothing else, ‘Strange Magic’ proves that no matter how much technical expertise and money is sunk into a fantasy film, the element that matters most is the script. If you can’t believe or at least buy into these cinematic flights of fancy, they’ll offer audiences nothing, regardless of how beautiful their surfaces might appear. Hopefully, that’s a lesson that George Lucas will finally relearn whenever he decides to write and produce another one of these “small, personal films.”