Every original story begins with a foundation in past lore. Whether that includes fables, mythologies or tales written centuries ago, inspiration is a key to building a story that people relate to, or find comfort in. Sometimes, these muses are hidden in a well-crafted, innovative idea. For others, like Strange Magic, the ingredients are on full display: Mix together a pound of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a cup of Romeo and Juliet, a pinch of Ferngully and a dash of The Dark Crystal, then lather it in a bowl of love potion number 9. Voila! An odd little love story from the mind of George Lucas is born.
Set in the world of fairies, imps, goblins and sprites (and a combination of other weird insects and creatures), Strange Magic throws us into its mystical setting with just enough exposition to make us think we know everything we need to know — the land has been split into two distinct halves: the light half, led by the princess, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), is full of love, optimism and naiveté; the dark woods, ruled over by the sinister Bog King (Alan Cumming), is scornful and devious (and in a lot of ways, dimwitted). Like their homes, these two characters are worlds apart, yet one and the same. They have both been scorned by love in some way, and do everything in their power to keep others from falling into its treacherous web. It’s clear why Marianne has abandoned her idea of what love is when she discovers the man she is about to marry, Roland (Sam Palladio), is cheating on her with another woman, but the reason behind the Bog King’s desire to eradicate love altogether stems from an incident that is only alluded to throughout the majority of the film. When it is finally revealed, it’s more than anti-climactic, but still fits with the theme of the overall film.
Both Marianne and the Bog King are terrific characters that get wasted among a weak narrative that fails to deliver much in the form of tension between them. Their relationship is at the heart of the story, and yet they are given very little time to grow and flourish, both individually and as a enemies of each other. The producers want us to see their antagonism as a kinetic attraction, but the screen time they’re given warrants nothing more than antagonistic besties. Though we get to see the Bog King’s gradual transition from menacing overlord to sympathetic martyr, Marianne’s transition from naive little waif to independent warrior is relegated to a two minute song at the very beginning of the film. Having her growth mirror the Bog King’s opposite transformation would have bound them together to create a much more moving and powerful bond.
Instead, the film gets sidetracked by secondary characters and subplots that either have no purpose, or are dealt with for too long, thus diluting the main attraction. The heaviest of these subplots involves Sunny (Elijah Kelley), a dwarf who looks like Jaleel White in old-age makeup, and his acquisition of a love potion that will help him secure the love of his best friend — and Marianne’s googly-eyed sister — Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), who seems infatuated with almost everyone except Sunny. Prompted by Roland for his own nefarious reasons, Sunny heads into the dark forest to search for the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth), who is being held captive by the Bog King to keep her from being able to make the desired potion.
From the jump, Sunny (as well as a couple of the Bog King’s minions) are set up to be the breakout comic relief, however, he’s given far more importance than is warranted. His side quest, as well as a superfluous subplot of trying to reacquire the potion after its stolen by some rat creature who wants to make all of the animals in the forest fall in love with each other, takes away a lot of time that could have been devoted to Marianne and the Bog King. Then again, the love potion angle does lead to one of the more amusing subplots in the film. When Dawn is accidentally struck by the potion, she is instantly captured by the Bog King, unable to look into Sunny’s eyes and fall in love. Instead, the potion is activated when she sees the Bog King, and her joy and love over him (as well as the reactions from other characters) creates the magic that the film reaches for throughout.
The soundtrack for the film, though, is where most of the fault can be found. The animation is so glorious in its attention to detail, and the character models are so beautiful (whether it be the gorgeous princesses, the pretty-boy war monger, or the creepy goblins), that you would expect the producers to match its quality with fun, inventive, original songs. Instead, we’re offered nothing more than “reinventions” of popular love songs from the last fifty years thrown out in short bursts that never allow us to latch onto them or their meaning. Coupled with the episodic narrative structure that causes the pace and flow of the film to be abundantly muddled, and voice acting that is somewhat indecisive (in both tone and the actor’s various accents), and Strange Magic, though aspiring to be an adventure for the ages, comes off as less than magical, keeping me from falling head over heels in love with it.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Project Almanac, The Loft, and Black or White. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.