“Love Looks Not With the Eyes, But With the Mind”: 'Strange Magic' Review
“It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” or so the old adage goes. Sometimes you can tell just where a movie’s headed – hell, you’ve seen this story play out a thousand times and then a thousand more on stage – but you still find yourself entranced by the way it jaunts about on its way to resolution. I’ve seen so many versions and riffs on A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I can call out even the subtlest nods as a roadmap to fairy-crossed lovers and mistaken identities. Yet even the adaptations that stay closest to the source can still find ways to surprise, as witnessed in my final movie for Shakespeare Month, Strange Magic.
Set in a world of faeries and goblins, the film opens on the young princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) as she flits about the valley before her wedding to the dashing warrior, Roland (Sam Palladio). But the day turns sour as the bride-to-be finds her betrothed kissing another girl and she vows to give up love for good. Flash-forward a few years as Marianne has grown into a capable, if cold, young fighter, as she has to save her air-headed and lovesick sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), and her best friend, a dwarf known as Sunny (Elijah Kelley) from a hungry lizard. On their way back to the safety of the upcoming ball, they disturb the primroses that mark the boundary between the realms of light and dark, whose petals are needed for a powerful love potion. News of the damage reaches the ear of the vile Bog King (Alan Cumming), a spindly tyrant who hates romance and the brighter kingdom. Roland fails to win back the elder princess’ affection and uses Sunny’s desire to have his affections reciprocated by Dawn to spur the little man into braving the dark woods to bring back a love potion from the captured Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth). But the plan goes awry, inciting the Bog King’s ire, causing Dawn to fall helplessly in love with the evil ruler of the forest, and spurning Marianne to step up as a hero to her friends and subjects.
Chances are, just by laying out the basic tropes of each character and having even a tertiary knowledge of the source play, you can tell where all of this is going to end. To be fair, it does suck a considerable amount of joy out of the film. Sure, it’s pretty to look at, but when you can tell who’s really good and who’s really bad in the introductory scenes and map out who will fall in love with whom, it’s really a bit of a buzz kill. Strange Magic is pretty by-the-books, so it comes down to being more about enjoying character interaction and set design than getting engrossed in a deftly handled plot. Still, there are some nice inversions on the basic setup, and that makes up a decent bit in the final payoff. The film’s barely a year old, so I’ll mark it under the statute of limitations on spoilers, but suffice it to say that if you were the kind of person who watched Beauty and the Beast and thought it was a bunch of bull that Beast had to go back to being a pretty-boy to be loved, you’ll like what this movie’s got in store for you.
The other interesting piece to this film (besides the Lucas name and branding, of course) is its choice to be a modern pop musical in the likes of Mamma Mia! Generally, I’m not too big of a fan of this kind of move – I think it dates the film quickly, even if I do enjoy some of the referenced material – and I have to admit, it really put me on the back foot with Strange Magic. You’re opening with tracks like “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and a lover’s quarrel set to a mashup of “C’mon Marianne” (yep, that’s the payoff for her name) and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” and that really doesn’t paint a good picture. Alan Cumming gets a few little solos that are basically spoken word versions of old rock tunes like Deep Purple’s “Mistreated,” and while the rendition’s quality is questionable itself, the very text of the song and the way that it’s shoe-horned into the scene is a glaring oddity.
Where the idea works, however, is in the staging and arrangement of these performances, as well as the more subtle musical nods throughout. There are some really cool visual bits as Marianne and Roland trade off parts in “Can’t Help Falling in Love” that are just a filmic dream and the conversation that plays out in their later musical fight is actually pretty entertaining. The best parts, though, are the little sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it audio queues, like the layering of the opening riff of Heart’s classic “Barracuda” during the lizard chase scene, or the way that Roland’s squadron uses the backing vocals to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” as their marching tune. It’s really funny, clever stuff, and the film would be better served with more of that kind of reference.
As mentioned previously, Strange Magic is a brilliantly thought out visual spectacle. The character designs are fun and poppy while being wholly original in that delightful Lucasfilm way. The female faeries are modeled after butterflies while the males have a more distinguished look from their moth-like wings. Goblins are sort of like little fish-frog people, and the Bog King, himself, is this towering, menacing hybrid between a mantis, a cricket, and a twisted fairy – it’s just too bad his face wasn’t a little more developed, as it straddles that line between human and inhuman a little too far over the uncanny valley.
So, is Strange Magic a terrible film? Not by any means. It’s got pretty low scores from what I can see online, but I think that’s a bit too harsh for this charming little piece. Does that mean that you should rush out and grab a copy now? No, I wouldn’t recommend that, either. It’s sort of bland once you’re out of it, and it doesn’t really leave a powerful impression one way or the other. It’s just a fine film, maybe a 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not taking any big risks, but it does what it sets out to do competently enough. If it makes it to Netflix or you’re sick of watching the same movies over and over and over with your kids, give it a watch. But if it requires more than a five-minute drive to go rent, well, maybe it’s best you just stay home and do something else.
The classic tale of four lovers be-mix’d
This Lucas production ought to be nixed.