The most-likely-last George Lucas production – released after selling Lucasfilm, but made mostly before – is also one of the most mysterious. When the trailer was released a few months before the movie, most of us had no idea that a George Lucas animated film had been in the works. There had been rumors reported about a fairy related project, but I don’t think I’d heard them. For once Lucas was able to avoid the pitfalls of anticipation and expectations.
Unfortunately, he did it for a pretty lousy film. I’d have to say this is my least favorite Lucasfilm.
Somewhat inspired by A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, this is a story about fairies, elves, and I want to say goblins. Princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood, THE WRESTLER) calls off her big wedding when she sees her hunky fiancee Roland (Sam Palladio) messing around with some other ho, then she gives herself a makeover and acts tough and swings a sword around, because of empowerment. “Good Girl Gone Rad,” says a poster they made of her. Meanwhile the displeasingly designed Sunny the Elf (Elijah Kelley, who played Joker in RED TAILS) wanders into the spooky part of the forest to steal a monster called King Bog (Alan Cumming, EYES WIDE SHUT)’s magic love potion and use it on the other princess, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), which causes Bog to retaliate by kidnapping Dawn, and then everybody else goes to try to rescue her.
The character designs are slightly more realistic than a Pixar or Dreamworks movie, but like Don Bluth characters they’re constantly waving their arms around to underline everything they say (possibly because the animators referenced videos of the voice actors recording while wildly over-gesturing to get that emotion into their voices). The look immediately struck me as unappealing, sort of a mish-mosh of butterfly wings and plants that must look pretty individually but then are kind of lumped together without a great sense of design. But I think I got used to it.
I actually tried to watch this earlier in the year when it was first released on video, and I didn’t make it ten minutes. Thankfully it gets more tolerable. Turns out the opening is kind of a joke, an intentionally corny love tune before Marianne snaps out of stupid infatuation and before we know that Roland is supposed to be a Gaston-in-BEAUTY-AND-THE-BEAST type oaf, but it’s not entirely different from what the rest of the movie is gonna be like, so it gets things off on the wrong foot.
But at least the look is much better when they get into Bog’s neighborhood and his monster army. It has more atmosphere and some of the monsters are pretty cool. One of them is voiced by Super Dave Osborne which is not bad casting for this sort of comic relief character.
Warning: this is a jukebox musical. The characters get across their feelings by singing well known songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “Crazy In Love,” “Love Is Strange,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Wild Thing” (not the Tone Loc one) and the title song by E.L.O. That would be fine if they weren’t singing such squeaky clean, blandly overproduced, modern Broadway versions of the songs. I always thought HAPPY FEET was a really good movie if you could get through all the cover songs. This makes me think the music in that one is not so bad.
When Bog and his boys cover their ears in horror at the singing it’s supposed to be an Oscar the Grouch or Addams Family type joke. They’re monsters, so they hate beautiful music. But the monsters are right, these songs are terrible! Not necessarily the worst, but maybe the most offensive to me, is Sunny’s kiddy version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (that’s the one that goes “Don’t worry / bout a thing / ’cause every little thing / gonna be all right”). IF YOU MUST, here is how he sings it. (Not recommended.)
(Here is the original in case you need to get that out of your brain)
Then another joke is that the monsters play rock music, but this would’ve been considered rockin’, like… before Kiss. It’s pretty square. The River Bottom Nightmare Band would take these chumps out.
That’s probly the best musical number in the movie though. I like that they built their little forest version of a rock stage, with lights and everything.
I understand the appeal of this fantasy world. Fairies live in a realistic forest, interacting with insects, using squirrels and lizards as mounts, creating armor and tools out of leaves and twigs, while the villains live in a spooky stump with an animal skull as an entrance. Usually it’s shot from their perspective, so they seem human-sized, only to occasionally pull back and remind us that they’re tiny. I think this way kids can imagine it as an exciting adventure that could literally happen (or could be happening) in their backyard.
Unfortunately for Lucas, two other studios already beat him to this type of material and did a better job. Disney has a similar series of DTV Tinkerbell movies that are lower budget but more appealing, and Dreamworks did a really solid one that nobody saw or remembers exists because they chose to give it the generic title EPIC. I thought EPIC was good but I guess it was forgettable enough that I confused it with the trailer for this one. It took me a minute to remember that EPIC is the one with Aziz Ansari as a snail, and this is the one with a pretty good joke where a rousing speech is followed by cricket chirping, and then it pans down and an actual cricket is in the crowd.
One little thing this does have over TINKERBELL and EPIC is this character, the Imp:
He’s obviously cute but he’s also kind of an asshole who steals the love potion and starts dosing different animals with it to fuck with everybody. We first see him crawling out over the Lucasfilm logo at the beginning, so they seem to recognize him as a strong mascot type character, but he sort of disappears after a while. That’s better than overdoing it, though.
I’m tempted to say something else nice about the animation but now I got one of the god damn songs stuck in my head again, so forget it.
Once I got through the movie I was happy that it at least has a good idea behind it. I did not expect that the heroine would end up falling in love with the monster bad guy and killing her handsome ex-fiancee to protect him. I also didn’t expect the dwarf to get the girl. And I think maybe this stuff is personal to Lucas, a dorky white guy who fell in love with and married a younger, hotter, black business genius who Vanessa L. Williams based her The Good Wife character on her. It’s a sincere sentiment about people being more than their looks and “finding love in strange places,” but the execution feels very forced.
I don’t buy the conversation where Marianne and Bog start to hit it off, but more importantly there’s a disconnect between the message and the facts of the story. Yes, someone could look like a monster and be a sweetheart, but this particular one actual did kidnap Marianne’s sister, has a bunch of animals locked up in cages and has held the Sugar Plum Fairy captive for years. He actually is a bad guy, but all is forgiven when Marianne likes him. Sunny is not exactly a bad guy, but unfortunately he’s the classic “nice guy” in the “friend zone.” He couldn’t get his best friend to like him that way so he tried to use a potion to force her. So even though he’s the underdog I think he shouldn’t get the girl. And Roland, though a bad boyfriend who wanted to use Marianne for her status, didn’t seem like he deserved to be killed. It’s weird.
This was another movie idea that Lucas worked on over a long period of time, in this case developing simultaneously with the STAR WARS prequels and finishing it about 15 years after initially conceiving it as a movie for his three daughters. “STAR WARS was for 12-year-old boys; I figured I’d make one for 12-year-old girls… I thought what if we could do one like that, only more female-centric? We still have sword fighting,” he said.
The director and co-writer is Gary Rydstrom, who came up as an audio technician, foley artist and sound designer for Skywalker Sound. Mentored by Ben Burtt, he worked on TEMPLE OF DOOM, EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR, CAPTAIN EO and WILLOW. As a sound designer and re-recording mixer he made many innovations on TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK, among others, before returning to the Lucas fold with THE PHANTOM MENACE. But he also had some experience in computer animation. Not only did he do sound for TOY STORY and subsequent Pixar features, he directed their Academy Awarded nominated short Lifted and the TOY STORY short Hawaiian Vacation. He spent a few years directing a feature for Pixar, but it was NEWT, which infamously was cancelled in 2010 after they decided the idea (scientists try to mate the last two blue-footed newts, but they don’t get along!) wasn’t working and they should do INSIDE OUT instead.
There are a bunch of ways this builds off of the previous Lucasfilms. The computer animation by ILM evolved out of Jar Jar, Watto, Sebulba and the rest of ’em. The music is kind of an outgrowth of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, with its then-revolutionary collection of songs. Tony Cox, who was an Ewok and Hooter in CAPTAIN EO and a warrior in WILLOW does a voice. The goblins are definitely reminiscent of the ones in LABYRINTH. And the bad guy switching sides is like Vader in RETURN OF THE JEDI or Sorsha in WILLOW. It’s the concept of the Dark Side and Light Side and how most people are actually a mix of both.
So it’s too bad all the elements come together so annoyingly. This isn’t the best note to go out on in my opinion. It’s a bummer that this will be my last new George Lucas film. That is unless he comes out of retirement or I become one of his friends that he shows his mysterious unreleased experimental films to. Drop me a line, George. Outlawvern at hotmail dot com.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.