Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lucasfilm's 'Strange Magic' is Beautiful but Boring

By Ron Fleming

Dawn and Marianne in Strange Magic
Dawn and Marianne in Strange Magic.
January is notorious for being a dumping ground for films that major studios just don’t know what to do with. Unless it’s a year-end Oscar-nominated film going from limited to wide release, one can almost surely bet that any new film coming out this month is going to be a turkey.

Being a lover of movies that are so bad they’re good, I took up the challenge of seeing Lucasfilm's new animated jukebox musical, Strange Magic. Tim threw out the suggestion to us here at The Mouse Castle and it was met with the sounds of crickets. I picked up the gauntlet in hopes that my Lucasfilm-loving boyfriend might tag along with me. Hmm. He’d never heard of it and after I sent him a link to view the trailer he flatly told me he had no interest.

I knew then that I was in for a real treat. I hoped for a movie so bad it was good. Instead I got a movie that was so bad it was just bad. That said, the movie has ambition. It just fails in nearly every regard.

Strange Magic is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and oh, if it were only a smidgen as enjoyable as that play. The story is by George Lucas with a screenplay credited to three writers: David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, and Gary Rydstrom. Did I mention it’s a musical? Well, it is only in the sense that it uses pre-existing pop songs to drive plot and character. It’s a device that seldom works as songs in these kinds of musicals were never meant to serve a purpose different from their original intent--and they don't work effectively here either. The songs are a grab-bag of styles over decades of music used in such a manner as to become an incoherent jumble.

Marianne and Roland in Strange Magic
Marianne and Roland.
The film opens promisingly enough with some rather joyful exposition which sets up Strange Magic's fairy tale world. You see, there’s a land, a land of fairies. One side is bright and happy, the other side dark and forbidding. Oooooh, scary! The Dark Forest is ruled by the Bog King (Alan Cumming) who, years ago, shunned love and now does everything in his power to keep it away from himself and the creatures who inhabit his forest. Bordering the two lands are primroses, which can be made into a magical love potion by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) who, for reasons that were explained well after I stopped caring about the film, has been imprisoned by the Bog King.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Fairy Land we meet Princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) as she flies through the air on her wedding day singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love." She's looking for the perfect flower to make a boutonniere for Roland, a rather good looking and vain fairy with the voice of a bad Elvis Presley impersonator (Sam Palladio). Things aren't quite what they seem between Marianne and Roland. Turns out he's mackin' on another fairy and only planned to marry Marianne to gain an army and a royal title from her father the King. The wedding is off (gasp!) causing Marianne to turn her back on love while singing Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Instead of being a poignant moment of love lost, it's laughable.

Dawn and Sunny in Strange Magic
Dawn and Sunny.
At this point I was sure I was in for a real camp-fest, but then we meet Marianne’s sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), another fairy princess who yearns for love, and a plain looking, ordinary elf named Sunny (Elijah Kelley) who just "wants to be noticed." At Roland's request, Sunny goes on a quest for the Sugar Plum Fairy's love potion. With the potion, maybe Dawn will notice and fall in love with Sunny, and maybe Marianne will fall in love with Ro-- Never mind. At the 20 minute mark the film fizzles out entirely and any good will drummed up by the opening montage and the hopes I had of a campy madcap romp evaporated.

And more's the pity because the animation by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic is stellar. The world presented here, especially in the opening montage, is fully realized in a wide array of creatures, plant life and other exquisite details. The opening flights of Marianne and the Bog King are so immersive and fantastical that I was surprised the film wasn't shot in 3-D. This is a sequence that practically begs for it for all the right reasons. My one complaint about the character animation is in the details of character design. The fairies are based on humans, obviously, and they all have cartoon like triangular heads in the Disney mold--oversized eyes, tiny mouths, etc. Nothing wrong with that. They're cartoon characters after all. But the problem lies in the realistic rendering of skin. Skin tones look natural, some characters even freckled, but it all leads to that uncomfortable Uncanny Valley, that place between real and cartoon, that makes me squirm.

The Bog King in Strange Magic
The Bog King.
Director Gary Rydstrom knows to frame images and move the camera around for maximum effect. For as much as this film went off the rails story-wise I was never bored looking at its visuals. And look at it I did as my brain checked out on a story that anyone with a basic knowledge of storytelling can see coming from miles away regardless of the twists and turns Strange Magic takes.

Now, the Bog King is a wonderful creation from start to finish. He’s tall, lean, and resembles an insect somewhere between a grasshopper and a cockroach. He has an iridescent glow through his ruddy browns and Cumming superbly voices him. Cumming knows exactly just what kind of movie he’s in and he injects his lovelorn character with believability, menace, and some real heart. The Bog King is the only character with any real personality at all. Cumming also gets to show off his rock star voice by singing Deep Purple’s “Mistreated.” It’s a camp delight. It was the one moment where the film almost got back on track. Almost.

Marianne and the Bog King face off in Strange Magic
Marianne and the Bog King face off.
Sadly, there isn't much to say for the rest of the cast who gives this crapfest all they have but have been directed to a point of such overblown sincerity that every joke and every song falls horribly flat. There are a lot of good actors here who have been given such poor material that I feel bad for them. It’s a shame too. There’s an interesting story somewhere in this movie. It takes twists and turns and there are loyalties and allegiances that change. It's not uninteresting except that it is. There's not enough back story to justify character’s motivations. I didn't know why I should care about any of these fairies and their love woes. Making it a jukebox musical romp didn't work either. The songs pulled me out of the story instead of into it and made me laugh at the film instead of with it. Those were the only laughs in a film is so desperate for laughs it even swings low for a “gay panic” joke when Sunny the Elf and his friend, whose name I never caught, wind up in a kiss. “That’s disgusting!” says one, “It can’t get worse!” says the other. Ugh.

Surely, the comedy is for the kids in the audience but even they weren't laughing. I was the lone single adult at my 9:30 AM Saturday morning screening. I chose to see Strange Magic then because of the cheap ticket prices before noon (yes, I paid to see this!) and because this particular theater has very comfortable recliner seats. At least my discomfort was comfortable. When the film was over I stood up and noticed that the little girl with the family next to me was dead asleep. The two tots behind me were also curled up taking naps. I’m betting their parents wished they had done the same.

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