Film Review: ‘Strange Magic’

'From the mind of George Lucas' comes this mirthless and derivative animated tale of two fairy princesses.

Voices: Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Bob Einstein, Peter Stormare, Kevin Michael Richardson, Llou Johnson, Robbie Daymond, Brenda Chapman, Tony Cox, Sterling Sheehy, Gary Rydstrom.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4191054/

If you’ve ever longed for a movie with all the insistent life lessons of a Disney fairy tale, the tacky visual excesses of digital-era George Lucas, and enough glorified karaoke covers to fill half a season of “Glee,” then you may want to treat yourself to the altogether perplexing animated brew that is “Strange Magic.” Everyone else can just imagine a CG cartoon mash-up of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Arthur and the Invisibles” and “American Idol” populated by extras from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and they’ll pretty much get the idea. An insipid byproduct of the Disney-Lucasfilm merger that looks to attract a fraction (if that) of the audience for this year’s “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” this noisy, unappealing children’s fantasy fails to distinguish itself among January’s many, many reasons to steer clear of the multiplex.

Lucas is credited here as an exec producer and as the writer of the film’s story, which follows the romantic misadventures of two tiny, spirited princesses in the magical Fairy Kingdom: pointy-eared, purple-winged Marianne (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) and her younger sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). Life is sweet and idyllic in this bright-colored, flower-strewn paradise, as Marianne celebrates her upcoming marriage to the dashing, Gaston-like Roland (Sam Palladio) with an airborne performance of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” — the first of some 20-plus pop-rock chart toppers, by artists ranging from the Doors to Lady Gaga, crudely repurposed here into a soundtrack that’s as obvious as it was undoubtedly expensive.

When she catches Roland two-timing her with some woodland strumpet, Marianne finds herself singing a different tune (specifically, Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), donning gobs of goth-girl eyeshadow and an aggressively punk attitude as she transforms herself into a sword-wielding, independent-minded feminist heroine. (The ditzier Dawn, conceived in line with the usual dumb-blonde stereotypes, remains an irrepressible flirt.) Given that wised-up gender politics have largely become the princess-pic norm (as demonstrated by superior recent Disney releases like “Frozen” and “Maleficent”), Marianne’s bratty makeover feels more like a sop to convention than anything else, which could also be said of just about every aspect of this thoroughly derivative and unengaging fantasy.

In a twist that nods in the direction of “Midsummer” (apparently a key influence on the script by David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi and first-time feature director Gary Rydstrom), Roland, still bent on winning Marianne’s hand and the crown that comes with it, decides to exploit the good-natured Sunny (Elijah Kelley), a diminutive, ebony-skinned elf who has unrequited feelings for Dawn. Injecting a self-conscious note of ethnic diversity into this cartoon universe, Sunny also happens to be the movie’s most likable character, not least when Kelley’s crooning his way through a cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”

Roland’s plot involves sending Sunny into the dangerous Dark Forest to secure a powerful love potion from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth, her helium-happy tones recognizable anywhere), who was imprisoned there ages ago by the wicked Bog King (Alan Cumming). A foul-tempered frowner who’s determined to stamp out love wherever he finds it, this malevolent human-grasshopper hybrid is no one’s idea of a romantic lead — which gives the movie its one remotely clever, “Beauty and the Beast”-esque twist, as the Bog King learns that, with a major self-esteem boost and a sprinkling of pixie dust, even the meanest, ugliest dude can become a deserving object of affection.

A worthy and unobjectionable lesson, to be sure. But at the risk of contradicting the notion that beauty is only skin-deep, it must be said that “Strange Magic” is a weirdly unattractive and frequently off-putting piece of animation, filled with characters whose faces, even the vaguely human ones, provide no point of emotional entry. Although rendered with predictable polish by the digital artists at Lucasfilm Animation Singapore and Industrial Light & Magic, the picture seems to unfold not in a coherently realized fantasy world, but rather at some sort of grotesque interspecies convention where Lucas and his collaborators have taken every conceivable character type that came to mind — goblins, imps, talking mushrooms, etc. — and plopped them down in front of the same meticulously detailed forest backdrop.

By and large, however, it’s not the look of the thing that grates so much as the thing itself. “Strange Magic” is the sort of picture often charitably dismissed as harmless fun for kids, never mind that it stems from an all-too-familiar corporate sensibility that insists on treating its target audience like pint-sized dummies, to be ribbed and lectured into submission rather than honestly engaged or entertained. Devoid of charm, mirth or inspiration, the movie is quick to distract you with the nearest weapon at hand — a frenetic action scene, an unfunny one-liner or, worse yet, another ear-clogging rendition of a hit single, in what the press notes have characterized as a deliberate tip of the hat to “American Graffiti.” That’s a stretch: The Lucas who made that 1973 classic might well have included the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” but he’d have drawn the line at a fourth reprise.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Strange Magic'

Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, Calif., Jan. 20, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (Animated) A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Lucasfilm production. Produced by Mark S. Miller. Executive producers, George Lucas, Kiri Hart, Jason McGatlin. Co-producers, Sarah McArthur, Kevin Munroe.

Crew: Directed by Gary Rydstrom. Screenplay, David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, Rydstrom; story, George Lucas. (Color, widescreen); editor, Chris Plummer; music, Marius de Vries; feature animation, Industrial Light & Magic; animation supervisor, Kim Ooi; sound designer (Dolby Atmos), E.J. Holowicki; supervising sound editor, Steve Slanec; re-recording mixers, Tom Johnson, Juan Peralta; senior visual effects supervisor, Tony Plett; visual effects supervisor, Nigel Sumner; senior animation producer, Jacqui Lopez; casting, David Rubin, Richard Hicks, Lindsay Perlman.

With: Voices: Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Bob Einstein, Peter Stormare, Kevin Michael Richardson, Llou Johnson, Robbie Daymond, Brenda Chapman, Tony Cox, Sterling Sheehy, Gary Rydstrom.

More Film

  • 'Bombay Rose,' Venice Premiere, Debuts Trailer

    'Bombay Rose,' Venice Film Festival Premiere, Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for animated film “Bombay Rose,” which will have its world premiere opening Venice Critics’ Week on Aug. 28. The film, written and directed by Gitanjali Rao, will also play in the Contemporary World Cinema strand at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 7. “Bombay Rose” is [...]

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu speaks during a

    Alejandro G. Inarritu on the Need to Preserve Poetry in Cinema

    Alejandro G. Iñárritu is urging the film industry to guard against the influence of television storytelling in cinema, a looming crisis he said could strip film of the beauty and poetry that make it a unique artistic form of expression. Attending the Sarajevo Film Festival to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award, the Oscar-winning [...]

  • Levan Akin on the Impact of

    Levan Akin on the Impact of ‘And Then We Danced’

    Georgian-Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin is already enjoying success with “And Then We Danced,” his acclaimed social drama about a young dancer struggling with the confines of tradition and forbidden love. The film, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, went on to win three top awards at the Odessa Film Festival, including best film and [...]

  • Brian Oliver'Black Mass' Premiere, Toronto International

    'Rocketman' Producer Developing Comedy 'Inward Bound' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brian Oliver’s New Republic Pictures, the company that co-financed and produced “Rocketman,” is developing a female ensemble comedy “Inward Bound.” The announcement comes on the heels of Universal’s “Good Boys” becoming the first R-rated comedy to open in first place at the North American box office  in three years, as well as the biggest opening [...]

  • Heroic Losers

    Watch Clip from Ricardo Darin’s Toronto-Bound ‘Heroic Losers’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to an exclusive clip and poster from Toronto Special Presentation “La Odisea de los Giles” (“Heroic Losers”) which, starring Ricardo Darín, has just scored in is native Argentina a standout opening weekend of Peso 58.8 million ($1.1 million) and 316,300 admissions for Warner Bros. Pictures. With “Heroic Losers” having released [...]

  • "The Hunt"

    'The Hunt' Director Breaks Silence on Film's Cancellation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Craig Zobel, director of “The Hunt,” hopes that the controversial political thriller will eventually be seen by audiences, and argues that its message has been misrepresented in media reports. Zobel spoke for the first time since Universal canceled the film’s release on Aug. 10, in the wake of a series of mass shootings and amid [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content