Strange Magic

tn_strangemagiclucasminusstarwarsThe 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.

This part has split screen. Like MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI!

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.

mp_strangemagicI 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.

still_strangemagic2This 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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2016 at 11:25 am and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Family, Musical, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “Strange Magic”

  1. Oh, George. I hope you never stop following your weird, inexplicable bliss, but “animated jukebox musical about fairies or some shit” is one trail I can’t travel with you.

  2. EPIC actually wasn’t from Dreamworks, but the even less consistent Blue Sky Studios. I also quite liked it, but found it fairly forgettable. STRANGE MAGIC didn’t seem to get much of a release in the UK, and hasn’t hit the home formats yet.

  3. Since I don’t have anything to say about this movie (I’m not even sure if it ever was released over here!), let’s talk for a moment about those TINKERBELL movies, since you mention them in here (In a way that makes me think that you have watched at least some of them).

    The thing is: You are right! “Appealing” is a good word for them. I always refer to the series as “surprisingly watchable for a DTV franchise, that is supposed to sell toys to little girls”. The weakest of them is part 1, which had a reportedly very troubled production history (After John Lasseter became the head of or whatever his job is at Disney animation and saw the footage that he made in the months before that, he got so angry, that he made them start over from scratch), the best are IMO part 2 (The Lost Treasure), 5 (The Pirate Fairy) and 6 (The Legend Of The Neverbeast). It’s interesting how this series also goes full LETHAL WEAPON on us, by adding more and more supporting characters with every movie, only to completely have the full house collapse in the latest part. (In that one, most characters don’t even show up in the background anymore and Tinkerbell herself gets demoted to a supporting player with very limited screentime.)

    Well, these movies are not exactly GREAT, but I think they are a good counterargument against “Disney ruins everything with their cashgrabs”, since they obviously poured a lot of heart into that DTV franchise. None of these six movies will blow your mind or change your life, but as a male adult, you don’t have to fear that you will think of putting pointy things in your eyes and ears, while watching any movie from that series.

  4. Are we really going there? Is this going to lead to Vern reviewing the TINKERBELL series?

  5. Well, he is the world’s first and foremost champion of DTV sequels.

  6. I don’t know, he resisted the urge to watch all 900 LAND BEFORE TIME sequels.

  7. If Vern can survive Hellraise DTV hell… Tinkerbell will be no problem.

  8. This has been a really interesting and thoroughly rewarding series of reviews, Vern…hats off!

    While you may not have convinced me to reexamine my opinion of Crystal Skull (or the prequels for that matter…yeah, I know, the series is called “Lucas Without Star Wars,” but I would argue that the prequels still hang all over these reviews like some unwelcome hangy thing…in my defense, you yourself have brought them up over and over throughout this series), you did manage to accomplish something more unexpected and worthwhile: ya got me to simply reconsider George Lucas as a person. I mean, above all, the dude has been an UNDENIABLY good friend to fellow artists in the best sense of the term; and, holy crap, it was really nice to simply be reminded of that fact.

    Oh, and no one can argue that the man didn’t put his money where his mouth is (who else in the entire universe has EVER invested over 200M of their own cash on clearly non-commercial “side projects”)?

    You also got me to want to watch Powaqqatsi…so, there’s that as well.

    Again, thanks for all of this.


  9. I just can’t get past the visuals in this movie, it’s fucking hideous looking.

  10. Every once in a while a terrible animated movie comes out that had a troubled production and spent years in development hell, DELGO was one, FOODFIGHT! was another and I think it’s safe to say STRANGE MAGIC is another example.

    And I agree Vern, it’s a sour note for Lucas’ career to go out on.

  11. I remember thinking this looked like a wannabe FERNGULLY. I actually really liked FERNGULLY but doubted that this would have anything as interesting as Robin Williams as a batty bat and Tone Loc as a hungry lizard.

  12. I haven’t seen all the TINKERBELL joints but THE PIRATE FAIRY was really dope. Everytime it’s showing on Disney Channel or Disney Junior I can’t help but watch it.

  13. I give THE PIRATE FAIRY a lot of credit for introducing a younger version of a popular character, without ever really rubbing his identity in our faces. There are many hints (especially a strong visual one in the finale), but I know even some adults, who didn’t catch who “James” (voiced by Tom Hiddleston btw) really was, until I pointed it out to them.

  14. Well, I wouldn’t lump it in with those other ones as a troubled production. I haven’t read any evidence of that. If it had been released by a Lucasfilm not owned by Disney and hoping to make more animated features I imagine it would’ve had more of a marketing push. And unlike those other two it looks expensive, finished, and made by experienced professionals.

  15. One funny detail you didn’t mention in this review is that the fairy king looked kind of like he was modeled on Lucas himself, see the picture at the bottom of this article: http://io9.gizmodo.com/strange-magic-is-a-relentless-tirade-of-cg-fairies-sing-1681299506

  16. Let’s be fair here. Every grey haired cartoon person with a full beard looks more or less like a caricature of George Lucas!

  17. I saw someone point that out, but weirdly I thought he looked like Joel Edgerton. I actually paused to check IMDb and make sure it wasn’t his voice. Since Edgerton played Uncle Owen in the prequels it seemed like it would make sense.

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