Strange Magic: 5 Reasons this Soon-to-be Cult Classic is Worth Your Time
Strange Magic, the most recent film coming from the mind of George Lucas, had a record-breaking bad debut. So bad in fact, that it’s officially the worse box office opening weekend for a wide release animated picture ever. Word of mouth did not help either as critics weren’t very kind. It was criticized for its pacing, its jukebox musical style, and in some circles for horrible marketing. For its distribution companies Walt Disney Studios and Touchstone Pictures it was not a successful outing. Despite this the film is not without its fans. It’s an oddball film for sure. So much so it’s hard to categorize. Did involving such an eclectic soundtrack ultimately turn audiences off? Did the unrecognizable animation not appeal to the masses? While the film did not make much of a splash now, it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered a cult classic and fan favorite.
George Lucas conceived the idea for the film way back in 2008 when he decided he wanted to make a film for his young daughters. His idea was to reinterpret William Shakespeare’s most famous comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Strange Magic is not a straight retelling but rather pulls the basic premise of the play, a love potion gone awry, to center stage. In the film there are two kingdoms the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest separated by a border of primroses. The primroses are the principal ingredient in love potion. But the Dark Forest, run by the elusive Bog King, has banned love potion and imprisoned the one person who knew how to brew it. Back in the Fairy Kingdom the King seeks to marry off his oldest daughter ,Marianne, to the man who broke her heart and keep his younger daughter, Dawn, from flirting around. When a love potion is brewed right under the Bog King’s nose he kidnaps Dawn in exchange for the love potion to be returned so he may eradicate it.
Strange Magic has a lot to offer from beautiful production and character design to well-executed and genuine character development between its romantic leads. This article seeks not to overlook its mistakes but rather shine a more positive light on a film that deserved much more attention than it received thus far.
Strange Magic features a variety of fairy tale creatures. Like many other films before it, such as Labyrinth or Shrek, it seeks to rework the fairy tale formula by populating its world with strong and unique looking characters. This required the animators to create not only delicate looking creatures like elves and fairies but wicked and repulsive characters such as goblins and imps. Most importantly, they all have to look like they came from the same world while still retaining their individuality. Strange Magic does this beautifully. The fairy characters such as Marianne, her ex fiancé Roland, and Dawn have butterfly attributes. They dress in bright colors, have clear wide-set eyes, and feature typical fairy attributes such as pointy ears and cherubic faces. That being said they do not look identical. Marianne has wild, close-cropped hair with wider hips than typically seen in fairy tale films. Her sister, Dawn, is daintier with a more flapper-esque physique. The male fairies such as Roland and the Fairy King are dressed in fine armor. Roland in particular though has flashier armor just as over the top as he is.
In addition to fairies they are also elves in fairy kingdom. The elf we get know the most is Sunny, Dawn’s best friend and confidante. Sunny and the other elves are stouter and dress far more simply than their fairy counterparts. But the elves do not come in one size either. Sunny’s sidekick, Pare, is wider and taller than the other elves. However, the characters that received the most unusual and interesting designs are the Bog King and his fellow goblin folk. The goblins with the exception of the King are heavier set with swamp like attributes. Some are frog like with webbed toes and hands. Others have beaks or elephant like trunks. The Bog King has a look unlike anyone else in his universe. He’s rail thin with what might be armor made of bark or some sort of second skin. He has attributes one would associate with a goblin such as sharp teeth and claws. But most interestingly, he has what looks like insect wings that when in use sound like a wasp or dragon-fly. The designs of characters from the fairies to goblins are practical and serve the characters personalities. For example Bog, who lives in a forest looks like he could blend in his environment if he needed to. Marianne who lives in a much brighter, friendly world looks like she just popped out of a flower bed.
The design choices were intentional, meaningful, and used to fully realize the world in which the story takes place. It does not feel so alien so out there that the audience cannot imagine such a world existing. But its fascinating to look at. An audience can marvel at Marianne’s reflection in a puddle or the glittering light of fungus hanging from a forest tree. Unlike mainstream Disney, Strange Magic does not focus on making its princesses Barbie doll beautiful or its heroes movie star handsome. Instead, they focus on making an entirely unique look, one that has not been seen in the mainstream. One could argue this ultimately hurt the film at the box office. Some critics refer to the animation as ugly or unappealing. Similar criticisms were brought up with Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and that film did not do well at the box office either. Regardless of how appealing you find the visuals you cannot fault its creators for willing to be different.
The director of the film, Gary Rydstrom, is probably best known for his voice direction. He directed the English dub for films such as The Wind Also Rises and even worked for Skywalker Sound for some time. As to be expected from someone with this much experience with sound, Strange Magic features some truly knock out vocal performances. The cast features some heavy hitters such as Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph, Elijah Kelly, Kristen Chenoweth, Evan Rachel Wood, and Alan Cumming. Unlike mainstream Disney the film featured no original music and instead featured a vast variety of covers from several decades. This included songs from Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Elvis Presley, The Four Seasons, and even Metallica. The actors particularly Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, and Elijah Kelly had to not only be able to sing but be able to put their own twists on the songs, while staying in character. Rydstrom manages to get all of this out of his actors and as result their personalities pop in really wonderful way.
Wood, as Marianne, has to change from the optimistic blushing bride we meet in the opening number to a much spunkier independent woman we meet shortly after. She’s able to sell that change not only with her strong vocals but her ability to be fun and quirky. Her anthem for much of the film I’ll Never Fall in Love Again and Stronger is sung with such conviction its hard to imagine anyone other than her taking it on. Sam Palladio who plays Roland manages to be both funny, charming, and arrogant in an incredibly over the top southern accent. And Kristen Chenoweth portrays the enigmatic Sugar Plum Fairy and bounces from manic to sweet with ease. But its Alan Cumming who has the most wide of range. He portrays the Bog King, a character who shifts from a capable villain to romantic lead. Cumming who is probably best known for his work on stage brings a rock star quality to the character. His versions of Presley’s Trouble and Metallica’s Mistreated underscore his villainy but still retain a vulnerability.
As wonderfully performed as these covers are, there is very little time in between each number, at least in the first half. This decision messes with the pacing making it hard to guess how much time has passed between the songs. As a result some numbers seem unnecessary. Adding more dialogue between these numbers would have easily fixed these problems. It would also have added more development for the side characters which feels needed at several points in the film. That being said the film has some very genuine character development between its leads. So much so that you almost forget the missteps in pacing and story structure.
As its made pretty clear in the trailer, Strange Magic, is a Beauty and the Beast story in disguise. This trope has been done so many times before, it can be hard to make it fresh. Lucas and his fellow writers manage to do it though with such ease, its admirable really. The Bog King and Marianne fall in love not because the story calls it for it but because they challenge each other, they inspire each other to be better, while still having so much in common. They are well established before they meet, so they minute they do, the audience can detect the spark. Marianne as we first meet her is a bit an oddball. She does not mind dirtying up her wedding dress. She does not need to have perfectly coiffed hair like her sister Dawn. And although she has her reservations of the goblin people; she is not against making peace with them. She even tells Dawn that when she takes the crown she is willing to do just that. After Roland breaks her heart she becomes tougher more reserved but she is still the odd one out. She prefers sword fighting to flirting and believes ruling on her own is a blessing and not a curse. Her love for her sister is as strong as ever and guards her sister from any trouble she might get herself into.
Bog King is introduced as nothing but a cruel, unfeeling king. He believes love disrupts order and brings chaos. Apart from his foolish advisers and his nosy mother, he spends time alone. He is mostly seen in shadow or from the back cutting an imposing figure in the Dark Forest. When it’s revealed to him that a love potion has been brewed he crashes a fairy festival to demand the potion back. In his rendition of Mistreated the audience gets a peek at his insecurity as he scares some elf children and seems to regret it instantly. His goons grab Dawn for ransom and demand the love potion returned to him by moon down. Despite his menacing glower and his army of goblins Marianne is not afraid of him. She punches him in the face. She throws another one only for Bog to catch it before he speeds off with his army. Dawn’s presence brings a softer side to him. Although he knows she has been doused with love potion he cannot help but feel a fondness for her. In one scene Dawn makes him a boutonniere or corsage, by the look on his face it becomes clear he’s never been treated this way before. Later in the same scene you see him toss the boutonniere to ground when one his advisers teases him about it. He has put up a wall to prevent any one from getting in.
Bog and Marianne’s first real conversation happens between clashes with swords. The two are evenly matched and clearly impressed with each other. Marianne brings Bog out of his shell and for the first time we see him having fun. From then on a begrudging respect is forged between them, so much so that they are willing to trust each other with their darkest secrets. It is revealed Marianne was not the only one unlucky in love. Through dialogue they discover they both feel like outsiders. And they acknowledge that they are things they admire, maybe even like, in each other. As a result Bog softens her making her realize she is not the only in the world who has been wronged. The secondary romance that between Dawn and her best friend Sunny is not explored to the fullest but it’s still worth the note. They share a song and its clear from the beginning how Sunny feels for his best friend. Dawn’s feelings are not explored and as result their romance feels and is one-sided. The characters that are not involved in romance such as Roland and the Fairy King are not really explored at all. Their motivations are unclear but they are fun characters to say the least.
Like many family oriented films, Strange Magic’s themes are fairly obvious from the get-go. Its story deals with the difference between artificial love and real meaningful love. Marianne discovers over the course of the film that there is such a thing as real love. And Bog discovers the harsh reality of artificial love, seeing it as something as selfish and horrible. Real love, as the characters learn, is selfless and causes you to do things, heroic things, you never knew you could do before. For other characters they discover love was there all along they just weren’t looking for it. While not a really deep or new theme it is certainly a powerful one. The greatest stories, the most lasting stories, often deal with love. It was love and selfless that gained the Little Mermaid her soul. And it was love that transformed the Beast into a prince. In Strange Magic love makes you a hero. It transforms you for the better even if that person does not and cannot love you back.
The film also speaks of the dark side of love or love gone sour. In most fairy tales the lovers meet on whim and fall for the first person who comes sweeping in. And the audience is led to believe they will be together forever. They do not touch on the possibility of the relationship falling apart. They are always at the honey moon phase of their relationship. In Strange Magic right at the beginning we see trust break. Through Marianne and Bog we see two people learn to risk getting their heart broken. They have to summon up the courage to put themselves out there and give themselves to someone who could hurt them. And that is an issue grounded in reality . While not a complicated lesson, its one everyone from a young child to an adult, can understand.
Strange Magic is nowhere near a perfect film. The narrative structure isn’t as strong as it should be. There are some pacing problems. Still, it’s a worthwhile adventure. It has wonderful character design, spot on voice acting, genuine development between the leads, and plenty of heart. You can feel for the characters, you can understand them. It’s not difficult to see yourself somewhere in there. It may be a bit an odd one with its strange look and jukebox musical style but anyone can find enjoyment somewhere along the way.
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