Strange Magic may be a pretty picture that the kids can sing along to, but within the larger spectrum of animated features it is pretty forgettable.
Strange Magic re-imagines Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” as an animated fantasy musical about two fairy princesses, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), who are each promised to a suitor they don’t really love. Dawn hopes to discover true love, while Marianne is an independent spirit and formidable warrior, unwilling to submit to an arranged marriage.
The plot thickens when an imp named Sunny – who secretly pines for Dawn – schemes to get a magical love potion from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristen Chenoweth) to finally win his love’s heart. Of course the plan goes awry, and Sunny ends up pointing his beloved’s affections towards the worst possible target: the evil Bog King (Alan Cumming). With her sister headed down a disastrous path, Marianne sets off to battle the Bog King and his horde of goblins, in order to bring her sister home.
Envisioned by Star Wars creator George Lucas, Strange Magic is pretty strange, indeed. One-third fairy tale (literally), one-third musical and one-third social commentary on the nature of love, its weird visuals and eclectic songbook will make adults feel like they’ve consumed some crazy psychedelic drug; however, younger viewers may find its colorful and song-heavy stimuli generally entertaining.
Director Gary Rydstrom (who helmed the 2006 Oscar-nominated animated short, Lifted) works with Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic to create a fantasy world that is vibrant, unique (while still employing familiar genre tropes) and generally beautiful to look at. However, beyond the character and production designs and the high-quality of the CGI animation, there’s little other directorial flavor to speak of.
The directorial composition of the film is pretty impersonal and not all that innovative – which is somewhat surprising, given the unique world and mythos the film establishes. Rydstrom does get a bit of a lift when it comes to crafting comedic moments (sight gags, etc.), but the action sequences and non-stop barrage of song-and-dance numbers just can’t match what other competitors in the industry are bringing to the table (Pixar, Dreamworks, etc.). Even sequences of flight are lackluster in comparison to films like How to Train Your Dragon; it’s ironic that a film so uniquely weird can also be so uninteresting.
Script work by David Berenbaum (Elf), Irene Mechhi (Brave) and Rydstrom is solid enough to adapt Lucas’ story into an easily-digestible parable about the conflict between infatuation and love, which doves-tails nicely with themes and ideas from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”. At the same time, the story does sometimes feel like too many cooks were in the kitchen – or it could be that wrangling Lucas’ strange beast into a comprehensible movie was the real challenge for the team. Regardless, the infusion of half-formed side characters and walking plot devices (Dawn & Sunny) detract from the real core of the narrative, which is Marianne’s quest for independence and her strange flirtations with the Bog King.
The voice cast rises to the challenge of not only infusing their characters with life, but also carrying an eclectic blend of tunes pulled from different decades of music. Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming provide the most entertaining vocal performance, having great chemistry with one another as well as with their respective characters. Right behind them are Meredith Anne Bull and Kristen Chenoweth, who provide a lot of the best comedic relief with some vocal acrobatics and smart comedic timing. Other actors like Maya Rudolph and Peter Stormare don’t leave all that much of an impression, and Red Tails actor Elijah Kelley sounds out-of-place with his high-pitched (and cartoonish) rendition of Sunny’s voice.
In the end, Strange Magic may be a pretty picture that the kids can sing along to, but within the larger spectrum of animated features it is pretty forgettable. In fact, the only draw may be seeing George Lucas’ name attached to the project, and the subsequent morbid curiosity that makes one wonder what a CGI fantasy musical by the creator of Star Wars is all about. But that’s not a question that requires a theater ticket to answer: home viewing will be just fine – possibly even better with the right cult movie viewing game.
Strange Magic is now in theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is Rated PG for some action and scary images.