Lucasfilm invites viewers into a world of whimsy, wonder and enchantment (and cheesy pop song covers, a moth-eaten story and some unbearable attempts at comedy) with the animated feature Strange Magic. Marianne (Wood) is a fairy about to marry the conceited prince Roland (Palladio). Marianne’s sister Dawn (Bull) is kidnapped by the tyrannical Bog King (Cumming), with both Marianne and the elf Sunny (Kelley) travelling to the Dark Forest to rescue Dawn. Spurned, Roland devises a cunning plan to make Marianne take him back, a plan that requires the love potion brewed by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) to pull off. Over the course of these events, the Bog King realises that maybe all he needed after all was a little bit of true love.
Strange Magic begins with a map unfurling and we find out that the two magical domains in which the film takes place are actually called “Fairy Kingdom” and “Dark Forest”. Within the first minute, it’s clear nobody really was interested in doing anything new with the story, which is a shame given the technically-accomplished animation work from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore. Even then, the detailed, lush backgrounds are offset by sometimes-creepy facial animation, sitting on the edge of the uncanny valley. Strange Magic is directed by Gary Rydstrom and, as the poster proclaims, is “from the mind of George Lucas”. Sure, Lucas has defined the storytelling of a generation with a certain space opera saga, but let’s not forget that “the mind of George Lucas” also spawned Jar Jar Binks. True to that, the comic relief characters here are all deeply annoying.
It’s a shame that after incubating for 15 years, functioning as a sort of proving ground for Lucasfilm’s Singaporean animators, Strange Magic ends up being so mediocre and forgettable. This is a movie that seems hokey and insincere at every turn. It does have a “message”, as films of this sort must – everyone deserves to be loved, don’t judge a book by its cover, you know the drill. The problem is, there is no conviction behind this and it just feels so perfunctory, especially when compared to the surprisingly mature meditations seen in recent animated films like The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6. On top of that, the film is presented in a “jukebox musical” format, meaning it is crammed with cringe-inducing, over-produced covers of songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Love Is Strange” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The soundtrack is produced by Marius de Vries, who was the music director on Moulin Rouge!, also a jukebox musical. The repurposing of the opening chords of “Bad Romance” as a military march is pretty clever, though.
The voice acting is fine and the one thing the filmmakers do get right is the casting of competent actors and singers in the booth over marketable marquee names. Evan Rachel Wood, who also did her own singing in Across the Universe, is serviceable as the stock “tough girl who can stand up for herself (but who still needs her Mr. Right at the end of the day)”. The Marianne character comes across as a cheap Disney Princess knock-off and the characterisation here reminds us that while it might seem overrated now, Frozen did get a lot right. Elijah Kelley does bring upbeat enthusiasm to the part of Sunny but the character’s “loveable underdog” shtick does come off as very forced. Alfred Molina barely registers as Marianne and Dawn’s father but it might be amusing to some that the character is designed to look as much like George Lucas himself as possible.
Alan Cumming is the movie’s saving grace as the Bog King. He brings his signature theatricality and flair but tempers it with a lot of growling and snarling. It makes sense once one discovers Strange Magic was originally pitched as “Beauty and the Beast, but the Beast doesn’t transform”. As unoriginal as it all is, at least Strange Magic doesn’t settle for a “good vs. evil” plot and while the Bog King’s change of heart isn’t all that convincing, Cumming makes it relatively easy to go along with. The character animation on the insectoid Bog King himself is also outstanding. Cumming’s fellow Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth has been described with the adjective “annoying” and as the Sugar Plum fairy, she does get on the nerves but all things being relative, is far from the most grating character. That ignominious honour probably falls to Maya Rudolph’s Griselda, the mother of the Bog King. All she does is nag at him to find someone and settle down, and that’s apparently supposed to be funny.
Animated films have the power to be cynic-proof, to deliver enough invention, charm and humour that hardened critics embrace their inner child for 90 minutes and allow themselves to be swept up in it all. Strange Magic does not possess this power. Everything that parents generally find aggravating about bad animated movies is here: painful attempts at comedy, shoehorned-in musical numbers and unsatisfying characterisation. Above all, it’s clear that Strange Magic doesn’t owe its existence to a fresh, intelligent story or dazzling visual invention, but because Lucasfilm Animation wants to prove it can stand with the big boys – which, for now, it can’t. Many of the animators who worked on Strange Magic also worked on 2011’s Rango, which was far wittier, dynamic and entertainingly offbeat. While we probably should be way past the “cartoons have every right to be bad, they’re meant for kids after all” stage, the reality is we’ll have to put up with films like Strange Magic, though hopefully less and less often.
Summary: Unoriginal and uninvolving, Strange Magic does have some good animation in it but it cannot compete with the many recent animated films that are well-animated and have excellent stories as well. The cheesy musical numbers and unfunny comic relief do not help.
RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars