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.