I was a little surprised when I was scrolling through the new releases on Netflix to see that Strange Magic is already available. Since I was mildly curious about the film when it hit theatres back in January, I knew it'd be the perfect thing to watch on a Sunday afternoon.
I was always curious to see what George Lucas was going to do post-prequels. I remember watching an interview with him as Revenge of the Sith was about to hit theatres in which he revealed that his ulterior motive to doing the Star Wars prequels was to gain enough financial security to finally be creatively independent. "Now I'll finally be able to do all the weird little experimental films I always wanted to make," said Lucas.
Turns out the first little "weird little experimental film [he] always wanted to make" was Indiana Jones fighting aliens. OK, turns out he wasn't quite creatively independent yet and still had that one contractual obligation. After that, he gave us Red Tails, a World War II film about the legendary Tuskegee Airmen that he'd been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s. That was one of the first films I watched when I signed up for Netflix, and I thought it was OK. But, you could tell what scenes were the reshoots directed by George Lucas, because there was a serious drop in acting quality in those scenes.
And that finally brings us to Strange Magic, a film which was totally and completely under everyone's radar. I first heard about way back in 2007 or 2008, when one of those movie gossip sites reported that Lucas was developing an animated film about fairies. It was just a tiny little blurb...maybe two sentences at the most. And then...nothing. No word whatsoever until the trailer popped up in late 2014, announcing its January 2015 release.
That, right away, was a tip-off that something was amiss. January has long been considered a dumping ground for less-than-spectacular films. And, since that 2-sentence announcement in 2008, Disney bought Lucasfilm. As one critic pointed out, you just know that if it was any good, Disney probably would have made it part of official Disney Animation canon and declared a new era in Disney animation. Instead, it was released under Disney's Touchstone label with very little fanfare.
But then, since Lucas has sold off his company and went into retirement, this probably is the last film that'll ever have the credit, "Written by George Lucas," so that was worth a look-see.
I was also curious about it because of the director: Gary Rydstrom. Rydstrom is a legendary ILM sound designer (he created the dinosaur roars for Jurassic Park) who first dipped his toe into animation as the sound designer for Toy Story. After learning animation from the greats at Pixar, he directed a couple of Pixar shorts and the English-language dubs for some Studio Ghibli films. This was his first feature-length animated film.
Our film takes place on the border of two lands: The Fairy Realm and the Dark Forrest. Our heroine is the fairy princess Marianne. After having her heart broken by the jerkwad fairy Prince Roland, she's sworn off love, remolded herself into a badass warrior, and has become over-protective of her sister Dawn. Roland figures the only way he can win back Marianne (and thus a shot at the crown) is with the most forbidden spell of all: the Love Potion. But in order to brew such a potion, it involves venturing deep into the Dark Forrest, and thus angering its ruler, the Bog King. Before you know it, the Fairy Realm and the Dark Forrest are on the brink of war, Marianne has to head into the Dark Forrest to rescue Dawn from the Bog King's clutches, the Love Potion starts wreaking havoc as people fall in love left and right, and we all learn that true love is a strange magic indeed.
Firstly, this plot is a tad too complicated for a kids film, as we get bogged down with too many characters and wondering who's in love with who and all that. Oh, and did I mention it's a musical? Yeah, it's one of those jukebox musicals that became popular in the wake of Glee, featuring many re-purposed bubblegum pop songs from the 1950s through to the present day. And, as is the case in such endeavours, sometimes the songs are awkwardly forced in, and other times they just kinda-sorta work.
I will admit, some choices are unique. The "Ga-Ra-O-La-La" from Lady Gaga's Bad Romance makes a surprisingly good war chant. More effective than the song choices are the instrumental versions of classic rock songs and classic guitar riffs that pepper the score. I really liked the instrumental version of the Doors' classic People Are Strange that's used when some magic mushrooms are talking to each other.
And, of course, the animation is gorgeous. This is just the second film that legendary special effects house Industrial Light and Magic did the animation for, the first one being Rango. I mean, this film is beautifully designed, beautifully animated, and just looks amazing.
Too bad the plot is so fairly routine, and doesn't rise to its amazing visuals. It's biggest crime is this is a story we've seen too many times before. That, and, this spectacular fantasy realm and the pop-peppered soundtrack does creative some odd juxtopositions.
I didn't find it as bad as the critics did when it came out in January. I just found it...mediocre.