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STRANGE MAGIC (2015) review

February 4, 2015

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written by: Irene Mecchi & Gary Rydstrom, and David Berenbaum (from a story by George Lucas)
produced by: Mark Miller, Kiri Hart, Jason D. McGatlin, & George Lucas
directed by: Gary Rydstrom
rating: PG (for some action and scary images)
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: January 23, 2015 (wide)

 

“I’m a total mess!”

Gather ’round children, I’d like to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a man named George. He was a guy who hated the system, and struggled to work within its constrictive confines. This man had a vision, and most studios wouldn’t give him the money to realize these ideas of his. Then one day – May 25, 1977 to be exact – this man George released a film that would forever change the way that movies were made, and suddenly the man nobody wanted to be in business became the man whose ideas everyone wanted. George’s ideas were spun into lucrative franchises, each of them a license to print money, and George transformed from the man who hated the system into the man whose mere whims could become fully realized worlds.

 

What did George do with this seemingly unlimited power and influence? He shut himself off from the world, holing himself up in a ranch in Northern California where no one could tell him “no”. He rid himself of all the people who challenged his ideas, and soon, people began to realize that maybe all those great ideas he had were borne out of the adversity of people telling him “no” for so many years.

“Strange Magic” is the latest creation from the man who gave us Jar Jar Binks more recently than he gave us Indiana Jones, and it feels like the work of a man who has never let a half-formed idea stop him from turning it into a feature-length film. Stocked to the gills with ear-bleeding covers of a randomly cultivated mishmash of pop songs from the last 50 years, the film is an embarrassing failure of the highest order.

 

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Set in a world populated with fairies, elves, goblins, and assorted other fantasy characters, all of whom have deep musical repertoires which include everything from Deep Purple and Bob Marley to Heart and Kelly Clarkson, the film sets out to pay homage to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead it becomes something more in line with a grating early Dreamworks films whose ties to its source material are as weak as its C-list cast of voice talent.

The film involves a fairy named Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) – whose name seems chosen specifically so her ex-lover can croon The Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne” to her – who has sworn off love since she caught that aforementioned ex-lover Roland (Sam Palladio) being unfaithful to her on their wedding day. A couple of things happen in the opening minutes of the film that signal this as being truly lousy family entertainment, from the infidelity subplot to the horrendous mash-up of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” with Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” How could these filmmakers have been so shortsighted as to hope that children would be enraptured by this film when it’s knee-deep in adult themes and adult contemporary music in the first ninety seconds?

Curiously, the film somehow manages to only get worse from there, a feat that’s almost admirable considering how precipitous its downward trajectory is following those opening minutes. Marianne’s sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) – again with the Four Seasons songs – is nothing like her sad sack Angela Chase looking sister, however. She’s a hopeless romantic who is excitedly preparing for the Spring Ball and whose only wish in life is to dance with somebody, which she illustrates by warbling the Whitney Houston tune devoted to such desires. The plot then takes a hard right turn into the hopelessly convoluted when the fairies’ world collides with the world of the goblins, led by the Bog King (Alan Cumming), and everything is soon thrown into the mix from magical potions, mystical misunderstandings, sugarplum fairies, and a non-stop onslaught of songs culled from the “Schizophrenic Aunt” playlist on Pandora.

I cannot even begin to fathom who the target audience for this film is. Children past the age of object permanence will find themselves lost in the labyrinthine plot, parents will cringe at hearing songs from their childhood being treated with all the reverence of a punch to the groin, and George Lucas apologists will likely throw their hands up in frustration. However, that last group will somehow convince themselves to take comfort in the fact that this film makes the “Star Wars prequels look worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

 

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Directed by Lucas flunky Gary Rydstrom, whose Pixar short film “Lifted” played before “Ratatouille, this is one of the most embarrassing endeavors ever signed off on by a major studio. Perhaps the fact that it wasn’t actually technically signed off on by any studio explains why its such a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a motion picture, and indeed the story behind its mere existence is vastly more interesting than anything contained in its interminable ninety-plus minute running time.

Thank goodness it’s at least mostly nice to look at. The animation is about 60% fantastic with a healthy 20% dose of the overly grotesque and a final 20% of eerie, uncanny valley-esque hyper realistic characters. One character in particular that feels like a creation Lucas himself insisted on shoehorning in is Griselda, the Bog King’s mother, voiced by Maya Rudolph. Rudolph is a very talented and funny lady, but this character is like something straight out of Lucas’ continued unhealthy obsession with stereotypes that peaked in popularity over 100 years ago. This character is so broad, it might be considered offensive were it merely not just another gross miscalculation by filmmakers operating in a bubble completely cut off from what children actually find entertaining.

That is perhaps the biggest problem “Strange Magic” has. It’s so hopelessly out of touch with what children might actually enjoy or think is cool, it might as well put on a leather jacket and do a Fonzie impression for them. This “kids love the Fonz” attitude permeates every pore of this film’s being, drenching it in copious amounts of flop sweat. You would think someone, somewhere along the way might have voiced such concerns, but such is the state of any production involving George Lucas. Everyone is either too afraid of him to speak up, or the film’s production team was comprised solely of the last remaining “yes” men he could round-up for this monstrosity.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from that story I told you earlier about the man named George who suddenly got everything he ever wanted – yet didn’t live happily ever after as Willy Wonka once promised – it’s this….No great films have ever been made in a bubble. Zero. None.

Great films come from a director fighting for every last cent to see their vision realized. They come from writers bearing down and rewriting their script again and again until every ounce of fat has been removed. They come from designers and technicians and artists hashing out their ideas, sticking to their guns, and finding out where the common ground is. Once upon a time, George Lucas gave us some of the greatest moments of our childhood, and nothing can take that away from him, but almost every single one of those moments was borne out of collaboration. It’s sad to say that there’s not a solitary ounce of collaboration to be found in this abject failure of a film.

 

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RATING: *

 

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