Judge Dawn Hunt was taught never to take magic from strangers.
Strange Magic is the ambitious animated failure from George Lucas. The story centers on Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood, A Case of You), the oldest daughter of the Fairy King (Alfred Molina, The Truth About Emanuel). She’s a fairy princess on the morning of her wedding to fellow fairy Roland (Sam Palladio, Nashville) and she’s in love—“Fools Rush In,” “Crazy in Love,” in fact. But Marianne’s bubble is burst when she catches Roland kissing another fairy. She takes her heartbreak and transforms herself into a hardened warrior intent on avoiding and indeed denouncing love at every turn.
This leads her to act as an unwelcome shadow to her younger sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull, Harold), whose flirtatiousness means she’s too likely to fall in love, having any number of crushes at any given moment. But Dawn’s best friend Sunny (Elijah Kelley, Hairspray) is an elf with a plan to help find her Prince Charming, though the love-struck elf would much rather Dawn finally turn her attention on him. Unfortunately things don’t go the way anyone intends when Roland convinces Sunny to go seek out the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth, Glee) who can create a love potion he intends to use on Marianne while Sunny will use it on Dawn. The Sugar Plum Fairy is trapped within the dungeons of the Bog King (Alan Cumming, The Good Wife), whose hatred of love is only rivaled by Marianne’s. When he discovers Sunny has been able to break into his castle and that the Sugar Plum Fairy indeed created a love potion for Sunny he kidnaps Dawn and insists the potion be delivered to him as ransom.
Of course hijinks ensue when the potion is inadvertently used on people it was never intended for and then there’s Marianne’s rescue mission which leads to her and the Bog King realizing they are actually on the same side when it comes to wanting to destroy the love potion and denounce love overall. Misunderstandings are revealed as are secret feelings all before we wind up singing our way to the credits. And speaking of singing have I mentioned this is a musical? It is, and not in the usual way where we get maybe half a dozen songs over the 90 minute runtime. No, we get tons of cover songs including the aforementioned “Fools Rush In” and “Crazy in Love.” I counted the titles in the credits and including reprises there are 39 songs. 39! So Strange Magic ends up being a bit of a love letter to popular music through the decades as well as an homage to arguably the most famous playwright in history…William Shakespeare.
The film is inspired by Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and is based on a story by George Lucas, who also executive produced the film. The revenue box office was poor, to say the least, topping out at just shy of 12.5 million dollars. The ambition in the film comes from the attempt to make the movie look unlike anything you’ve seen, and in this it succeeds. There was an incredible amount of effort put into creating a digital world which mimics the realism of our own to a heretofore unparalleled degree. None of the characters look like any previous incarnations though they are fairies and elves and other well-known fantasy staples. The two realms the story inhabits look like real locations, beautifully unspoiled parts of nature just waiting to be discovered.
I appreciate a lot about the film. I like that the visual style is so carefully rendered that it truly looks like nothing I’ve seen before. I like the range of song styles used. Though not every song’s performance works for me I do appreciate the showcasing of so many different artists. The highlight of the singing for me is definitely Kristin Chenoweth’s rendition of “Love is Strange.” And I appreciate the overall bits of humor worked in. This isn’t a hilarious film but just about every character is given a moment to make us laugh. It would have been easy to simply assign one character to act as the comic relief so I applaud the risks taken to try and let the audience see each character as more than one simple dimension.
However the story leaves a bit to be desired. My biggest issue is an enormous problem created by careless use of the love potion which is never resolved. I’m all for embracing the spirit of The Bard—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of my favorite plays–but if a large part of your conflict resolution rests on an antidote then that antidote needs to be applicable to everyone, not just a lucky few. There’s also an occasional disconnect with our main characters. Some things simply happen too quickly, leaps made without explaining why our characters are jumping from Point A to Letter 3. Yes we understand they happen yet there’s a bit of that “it came out of nowhere” feeling a few times. I think the film overall would have worked better for me if there had been additional scenes with our main quartet to help flesh out their stories more as well as possibly cutting out some tertiary characters to help keep the runtime tight.
Let’s go ahead and get to the nitty-gritty of the technical specs since we’ve already talked about the aesthetics some. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer truly produces unique visuals, with some of the most photo-realistic elements I’ve ever seen in an animated film. And all those songs I mentioned? The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds great. I never needed to adjust my volume at all even for the hard rock numbers. The audio blend works well for me. Overall I wish this had been a Blu-ray just for the technical specs alone. I have to believe it’s probably one of the most arresting animated Blu-rays ever produced.
In terms of special features we really only have a couple: a musical mash-up of tests and characters’ designs, and a behind-the-scenes interview which briefly details some of what went into the creation of the film.
Overall when it comes to judging Strange Magic I think its reach exceeds its grasp. While the ambition of the visuals is fully realized the cost is of some story elements. I don’t think you need to track this down yet given the choice I’d rather watch this, which tries to rise above its brethren, rather than something which merely fades into obscurity, indistinguishable from dozens of other films in the genre. So if your interest is piqued there’re plenty of visuals to provide a feast for your eyes while the singing will charm you as well. Just be prepared for some story stumbles.