Review: “Strange Magic” Is More “Terrible Karaoke Musical”
Definitely strange, but far from magical.
I have a lot of respect for George Lucas after hearing him say that he made Strange Magic because he felt girls needed adventure stories as much as boys. After being disappointed by the way he relegated strong women in the Star Wars films to damsels, I get the sense that he’s finally getting the point. That being said, I was hoping all the negative reviews I’d heard about Strange Magic were an example of piling on negativity, and that maybe the film wasn’t all that bad. Tragically, it is exactly as bad as its 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating; it’s a terrible, lazy, and dull animated film which would not seem out of place as a ’90s straight-to-video release. LucasFilms’ first release under Disney has some beautiful digital designs and photorealistic backgrounds, but I honestly have no idea to whom this movie might appeal.
The movie focuses on the Bog King (voiced by Alan Cumming) who has captured the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) for making love potions from prim rose petals. But, you know, that part of the story happens off-screen because who wants to see something exciting in an adventure movie for kids? Then there’s Princess Marianne (George Lucas has a thing for warrior princesses, of which I firmly approve) who sees her fiancée, Roland (Nashville’s Sam Palladio) cheating on her with some other fairy. Again, this movie is supposed to be for children and storylines about infidelity seem a little bit mature, but hey. In response to the infidelity she witness, Marianne gives up on love, dresses, and flowers, and puts on some pants, edgy eye-shadow, and teaches herself to use a sword.
Meanwhile, her flirty, boy-crazy sister Dawn (Meredith Ann Bull) is oblivious to her best friend Sonny’s (Elijah Kelley) feelings for her. Frustrated, Sonny plans with Roland to have Sugar Plum make them some love potion to give to the sisters for some good old-fashioned brainwashing. There is also Bog’s mother Griselda and the girls’ king father (who looks a lot like George Lucas) voiced by Maya Rudolph and Alfred Molina respectively, and a rather cute imp (voiced by Brenda Chapman), along with a thug named Thang, voiced by Peter Stormare (because kids love that big scary guy from Fargo). So, are you interested in the film so far, or do you feel a little high? Because let me tell you, when watching it, you certainly start to feel the psychedelic influence – and when you add some really bad music and a nauseating neon hue to those visuals, you might get a sense of why I couldn’t finish my $4 Cherry Coke Zero.
Now, unfortunately, we need to get into the music in this movie, because it’s just interminable. Rather than write some new songs (like Frozen), Strange Magic uses familiar, uninspired pop music with boring, KIDZ BOP style arrangements. The problem with doing this in an animated film (unless it’s as well-written as Shrek) is that listening to actors sing familiar songs in a familiar style just isn’t as impressive as seeing them perform that same music live. In fact, I think I would have liked this movie far better if it were live action with CG backgrounds, like Maleficent, in order to give the Broadway cast the opportunity to actually perform. As it stands, knowing Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth were forced to sing boring bubble gum pop music in a sound booth is just depressing. The musical choices have the artistic integrity of Rock of Ages; most of the songs sounded like they belonged in a cheesy romantic comedy. They didn’t even do a version of “Love Potion #9.” It was sitting right there.
As for the characters in this not-very-exciting “adventure,” they’re all about as well-developed as the characters in the Star Wars prequels. Roland is a less interesting version of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, only with a Southern accent. Dawn is a flighty, flibbertigibbet frequent victim without common sense, and yet still manages to be the only character who garners even a bit of warmth from the audience. Bog, mostly thanks to him being a villain played by Alan Cumming, has a few solid moments, but Chenoweth makes Sugar Plum completely grating and unpleasant to watch.
Most of the fairies have a generic Barbie faces, while the creatures in Bog’s dark forest are inspired by animals such as frogs, lizards, and mice. Sonny’s face, however – and he’s the only character like this – looks like someone selected a very specific face to animate, and put that “realistic” big head on a tiny body. It’s just atrocious character design, and the stereotypical writing of that character as “urban” with a black child’s face is a huge mistake, reminiscent racial insensitivity showed of Jar Jar Binks. None of the other characters have connections to specific ethnicities, so why this one, voiced by a black actor, had to is just bizarre. Kelley is an extremely talented actor with a fantastic voice, but this was just a poorly-written role.
Marianne, who we are told is the protagonist, really isn’t much of a heroine. She ultimately doesn’t do much, has a guilt complex, and disappears for large sections of the movie. I loved the idea of a heroine in a princess movie, but if this were the movie I saw a little kid who passionately loved She-Ra, I would have been as upset as I was the day a McDonalds employee told me a couldn’t have a Hot Wheels because they were the “boy’s toys: and forced a Barbie on me. The movie feels as if it is pandering to an oft-overlooked audience without delivering any of the promised goods, and the lack of quality and effort put into the film makes it seem more like cash grab than anything.
Worst of all is the fact that movies this bad can actually have a detrimental effect on the push to increase female representation in children’s films. After the huge success of Frozen, which is forcing the industry to take a closer look at “female driven” films for girls, I can see this film’s failure being used as “proof” that that they don’t work. We’ve all seen that ,no matter how successful the previous film is, just one misstep can cause the industry to take two steps back.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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