George Lucas owes us. He owes us for Howard the Duck. He owes us for those god-awful Star Wars prequels. He owes us for refusing to release the original trilogy in its unaltered state. And now he owes us for Strange Magic, a sad, stunningly bad animated film which channels better properties and ideas for a convoluted narrative and even more maddening character design. Like the equally ugly misfire from a few months back, The Boxtrolls, this CG nightmare contains frightening elements, questionable narrative choices, and at least one good thing — a reason to go back and revisit the far superior family film Paddington one more time.
Oh, and let’s not forget the film’s noxious desire to constantly throw reconfigured pop hits into the mix as a kind of groan-inducing Greek Chorus. Ugh.
The incredibly confusing story here involves a secret world of pixies and goblins and the complicated political games (again with the politics, George?) being played out among the various residents of this so-called magical realm. On one side is The Fairy Kingdom and our heroine Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood). On the other — the Bog King (Alan Cumming) and his Dark Forest. In between is a crop of magical flowers that can be used to create a love potion, perfect for having someone instantly fall head over heels. When our unlucky elf finds her betrothed Roland (Sam Palladio) making time with another woodland imp, she vows to never fall in love again (cue Burt Bacharach and Hal David).
Over in the evil part of the glen, old Boggy is keeping the sorceress otherwise known as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) hostage. He’s also the target of a potion-inspired longing by Marianne’s sister Dawn (Meredith Ann Bull). Of course, good and evil meet deep in the forest and prepare for a lot of computer-generated battle action. Eventually, our leads all link up, discovering their various interpersonal and interspecies connections. All the while, they belt out a collection of reconfigured chart-toppers, the lyrics frequently altered to explain/expand on the already convoluted storyline.
Conceived before his deal with Disney and now bound to be the House of Mouse’s first big screen disaster of 2015, Strange Magic looks decent but plays terribly. The character design may borrow from recent efforts like Epic, but it’s done with a great deal of detail and panache. What’s wrong here is the script, which begins by borrowing from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then delves even deeper into the treasure trove of already known narrative tropes. Lucas’ hand in this part of the picture is obvious. As a creator of mythos, Messageboard Nation’s whipping boy loves to borrow, and Strange Magic is expert in its scrounging. Unfortunately, it can’t find a character for us to care about or a way to make the frequently incongruous elements work together.
The music is equally off-putting. The juxtaposition between Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and ELO’s “Strange Magic,” among dozens of others, is like a millennial mom’s earworm nightmare, and the karaoke quality of the soundtrack never fades. In fact, the entire film seems set on warp speed, never stopping long enough to let any of its attempted lessons sink in. Just when it looks like the movie will have something to say about love’s destructive nature, novice director Gary Rydstrom comes along and throws another tune from the humorless hit parade into the mix to bustle things along.
It is said that Lucas was inspired by the lyrics to many of his favorite songs, hoping to use said words as the basis for a fairy tale about opposites and attraction — which is not the most novel or inventive idea every conceived. Still, with the way this movie looks, Strange Magic should satisfy those looking for the typical CG eye candy. Everyone else will consider it Jar-Jar-junk.