On its way to box office supremacy and Christmas season ubiquity, Disney’s Frozen left a lot of pretenders in its dust. With the exception of Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises, 2013’s animated scene was defined by better-than-expected sequels, but not much else outside the sweep of Frozen‘s popularity vortex. 2014, by contrast, saw studios separate the House of Mouse putting their best foot forward, with creative successes from the aforementioned Ghibli, Aardman Animation, Dreamworks, and the house that LEGO built, Animal Logic. As a showcase for the breadth of styles and narratives available, 2014 was a stellar year for animation. Strange Magic, the first animated feature of 2015, suggests such a trend ended with the calendar year.
The first feature from Lucasfilm Animations not to bear the Star Wars name, one has to wonder if Disney treated Strange Magic as a neat pack-in, or a contractual obligation when they purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012. The story and general vision of the film are credited to George Lucas, whose post-Star Wars career gives the impression of a creator who’s made peace with himself as a filmmaker, even if his most ardent fans/detractors never will.
It’s only through that lens that one can understand why Strange Magic draws unashamedly from the wells of Lucas’ impulses that gave the world Jar Jar Binks, and the most laughable cinematic romance of recent memory. Strange Magic is barely ninety minutes, and almost every one of them is spent singing to the treetops about how in love with love it is, employing all manner of quirky and whimsical creatures as the mouthpiece for such sentiments. It’s the kind of swing-for-the-fences romantic fairy tale that not even Disney has touched in ages, and that it kinda works some of the time proves there’s indeed a bit of magic keeping this oddball creation out of the same conversation as the Doogals or Delgos of the world.
Strange Magic only operates in one gear: giddy, heart-bursting enthusiasm. From the get-go, the film is so gob-smackingly earnest in its intentions that the prologue alone leaves you all-but certain what’s to follow will be a complete fiasco. Take Frozen, crank up the energy and temperature 30 degrees, and you’ve got an idea of where to start. Evan Rachel Wood voices Marianne, a Thumbelina-sized fairy princess preparing to rule her elf-populated patch of woods that border the neighbouring Dark Forest. Spurned by a wayward beau, the royal ingénue refashions herself as a love-hating warrior princess, much to the dismay of her doe-eyed sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull).
The artistic design generates little wonder or awe initially, as the overriding aesthetic of Strange Magic seems to have been ripped right from the cover art of every graphics card box circa 2003. The textures, while pleasing in a tradeshow-tech-demo sort of way, show great detail, but little imagination. As the throwback story of literal fairy tale romance pushes further from quaint into cliché, once love potions and a kidnapped princess enter the mix, you’re left to wonder if Lucas’ plan was to make Strange Magic as to classic Disney films what Star Wars was to Joseph Campbell.
Like Frozen, marketing has done everything in its power to hide the fact that Strange Magic is a musical –and worse yet, a modern jukebox musical. Knowing that its love letter to the power of love will sound sweeter coming from the mouths of Top 40 babes, Strange Magic skips and hops from Lady Gaga to Kelly Clarkson to The Black Eyed Peas –really, any upbeat song that can deliver the emotional point of the scene at something faster than a snail’s pace. Things pick up a bit once the Dark Forest’s ruling Bog King (Alan Cumming) takes on a greater role, but for much of its run, Strange Magic plays like direct-to-VHS leftovers stitched together with saccharine pop tunes.
The enthusiasm of Strange Magic does little to cover up its rote story structure (that does at one point acknowledge the specific debt owed to Beauty and the Beast) and a sense of humor that’s heavy on quips, light on inspiration. But right around the halfway point, a change of scenery coupled with your own adjustment to the brand hooey Strange Magic is selling work the film into a comfortable groove. Not a terribly original or exciting one, but an affably chipper, occasionally progressive mode of operation where you’ll either be won over or worn down enough to start enjoying the songs and broad comedy as you’re intended to. What Strange Magic lacks in character depth it makes up for in abundance of comic-relief creatures, though a few memorable turns are eked out by Alfred Molina and Maya Rudolph, voicing the dotting parents of Marianne and Bog King, respectively.
The overall product is far too beholden to old Disney tropes to move any of them forward more than a few inches, and the moral of the story is the kind of spoon-fed mush meant to nourish only the youngest of viewers. At the same time, violence and destruction are minimal, the story is so lightweight that it never tries to manipulate you for pathos, and a late dose of psychedelic visuals in the homestretch hammers home the slight ways in which Strange Magic makes this world not fresh, but at least its own. Low ambitions given an honest effort aren’t worth celebrating, but they’re less harmful than the real dogs Strange Magic will likely be compared to, animated or otherwise.
Strange Magic isn’t a good movie, but it’s the kind of bad movie that's existence you can at least feel okay about.