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George Lucas. A name that conjures images of adventure and imagination. A name that translates to magic in the film and the gaming industries and ultimately transcends the person it belongs to, moving into a space that is what we call a brand, which is to say there is a distinctive touch on anything from the Lucas factory. This touch, comes with a certain level of expectation from such a name behind franchise hits as Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
Even with certain widely panned missteps relating to aspects like the Star Wars prequel trilogy (excluding Episode III), the Star Wars special editions of the late 1990s, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the name George Lucas is a name that many would still follow into any galaxy. Even if that galaxy is a place called Fairy Kingdom, which is where the story of Strange Magic takes place. We all want to know what happens there.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a huge theme in Strange Magic is all about love and the complicated nature of it. We have a fairy princess, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) who is very much in love and poised to be married to handsome fairy hunk Roland (Sam Palladio). However, when she gets her heart broken, she renounces love and hardens herself. After her sister is kidnapped over a love potion, Marianne must rescue her from the evil Bog King (Alan Cumming) or risk losing her forever. In the process, she unexpectedly rediscovers love in the most unlikely of places.
One of the pleasant things about this movie is the way in which it deals with the awkwardness of potential love and the challenge of learning to be vulnerable with another person again after being hurt, even if it does so in rather broad strokes and sometimes feels crammed in and less natural. That said, one of the unpleasant things about this film is the heavy-handedness of the theme of love. We understand that the story deals with love, both real and artificial, as well as the loss of it, but the near constant slamming of it against our heads was frankly cringeworthy. This movie had the potential to be a strong commentary on the nature of love, but it never manages to go beyond the surface; failing to depict any of the subtle nuances of love and how those nuances might be reflected in the characters. As a viewer, you might long for the same subject to have been handled by a company like Pixar.
Speaking of Pixar, visually, Strange Magic is on par with anything that might be put out by Pixar. Lucasfilm Animation did a remarkable job on the design both of the characters and the world the characters inhabit. Particularly the Dark Forest and its many varied and unique creatures. The level of detail and moving parts is staggering, which does much to make the forest feel like a living, breathing character. The colors of Fairy Kingdom are vibrant and rich, nearly oozing from the screen, the contrast of the two places is stark and works well tonally for the film’s central theme and conflict.
The soundtrack plays a huge part of how the story is told. Spanning sixty years and ranging from classic tunes to the more contemporary pop hits, the choices were at times inspired in terms of how the familiar songs were remixed and in some cases, married together. It helps when you have actors that can actually sing well, as in the case of Elijah Kelley, whose voice you may know from Hairspray and who made an appearance in another Lucas produced picture, Red Tails. He had solid vocals as the character of Sunny the elf; a real standout. At other points though, you might shake your head. Some of the song choices, however strong, just seemed plain off. One of the Bog King’s numbers is a good example; should you decide to see this movie, you would easily be able to pick it out. There is a lot of music to go around, but thankfully, there are some spots of just good, old-fashioned dialogue between the characters. It isn’t great dialogue, in fact, it’s mostly one-dimensional, but more of that would have been better than the inconsistencies with the music.
Another huge area of disappointment comes in the form of the movie’s treatment of the female characters as essentially driven by love. It seems an even bigger disappointment when you think of how the contrarian George Lucas, made this the Star Wars equivalent for girls because “you’re not supposed to make movies for girls,” as he recently said. One might amend that statement to say that ‘you’re not supposed to make this movie for girls’. Here’s why: What kind of message does this movie send to girls and kids in general? Certain aspects, particularly with regard to the love-obsessed females (as well as mothers obsessed with their children finding love) and how some of the male characters in the film play into societal roles of how boys and girls should behave when dealing with one another make the movie feel dated in that way. Is George Lucas telling his daughters, to whom this movie is a love letter, that in order for their lives to have any meaning, they must seek love from a man? Luke Skywalker was not defined by his search for love. He was much more than that; so why do the female characters here feel like they have to be defined by love or lack thereof? Alternatively, do boys have to resort to tricking girls to fall in love with them? These are potentially problematic questions when thinking about how impressionable some kids can be.
Obviously, this movie is not meant to be so cerebral in its presentation of themes and tropes. It is a simple story with a simple and even meaningful message that everyone, no matter how pretty or ugly, deserves to be loved. It’s a good message for kids, but that message can be overshadowed by more troubling subconscious and behavioral messages, which can ultimately cancel out any positive ones.
There are genuine moments of wonder, beautiful visuals, nice touches of humor and a couple solid characters with actual arcs in Marianne and the Bog King. That said, this could be considered ultimately, as another slight misstep for George Lucas and his team at Lucasfilm Animation. Lucas’ fan following will still remain intact after this, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t question his choices every now and again.