'Strange Magic' casts a musical spell, but as a movie it misses

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Disney's animated fairy tale 'Strange Magic' plays more like a very long music video than a feature film

"Strange Magic," the new animated musical fairy tale from the mind and the mixtape of George Lucas, is indeed strange. What's missing is the magic.

The first animation feature film collaboration since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 seems a contrivance at best. It plays very much like a long music video, albeit a relatively harmless, PG-rated one.

Listening to "Strange Magic" — because you do find yourself listening at least as much as watching — it's as if Lucas handed over a list of his favorite romantic pop ballads (he did choose the songs) then sketched out his story idea of a kingdom divided (Lucas gets that credit too). With colorful beauties on one side and beasties on the other, the endgame is set up to overcome all differences with, cue music, a "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Supposedly Lucas was inspired by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but if that's the case something's been seriously lost in translation — emotion, love, lyricism and laughter to start.

Director Gary Rydstrom, making his feature film debut, has spent much of his career designing or re-mixing the sound for big movies, including Lucas' "Star Wars" Episodes I, II and the coming J.J. Abrams-directed "Episode VII — The Force Awakens." David Berenbaum ("Elf"), Irene Mecchi ("The Lion King") and Rydstrom wrote the screenplay, or, as I think of it, came up with words to fill the space between songs. The sound rocks.

Marius de Vries, the man behind the music of "Moulin Rouge," is "Strange Magic's" composer and musical director, which is not an insignificant role considering the film is all about the music. There are covers of about 25 hits from decades present and past, including "Barracuda," "Bad Romance," "Trouble," "Love Is Strange," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" and "Crazy in Love."

Imagine most of these songs delivered with lyrics twisted to fit the tale. And vice versa. How else to explain the use of "C'mon Marianne" and the fact that one of the movie's leads — the fairy warrior princess voiced by Evan Rachel Wood — is named Marianne?

Her opposite number is the Bog King, some sort of unsightly flying insect played by Alan Cumming who rules Dark Forest. Currently on Broadway starring in "Cabaret," Cumming is unfazed by anything the musical maestros throw at him.

Now a word about the animation. Computer-generated, its digital clarity is blinding, particularly on the light, bright Fairy Kingdom side. When it shifts to the Dark Forest, so menacing is the look of some of the goblins, dimmer would be better. Doesn't happen.

As the film opens, Marianne's dad, the Fairy King (Alfred Molina), is thrilled his daughter is getting married. She's thrilled too, eager to say her "I Do's" to the charming prince Roland (Sam Palladio, best known as Gunnar Scott, one of the rising country stars in the ABC hit "Nashville"). Until she discovers he's a jerk, calls off the wedding and swears "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Meanwhile Marianne's younger sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) is "Addicted to Love." But please remember, because "Strange Magic" really does not want anyone to forget, it's what's inside that counts. Take Sunny (Elijah Kelley), an elf, not really fairy marriage material, but he's sweet and has a serious crush on Dawn.

Sunny's also the first link in a very long chain reaction that is about to begin. By picking the petals off the forbidden primroses, he will anger the Bog King.

"What's Love Got to Do With It?" you might ask (not on the soundtrack). A single primrose petal is the key ingredient needed for a love potion that, tossed like glitter in Dawn's face, will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees. So is the message it's what's inside that counts? Or, contrary to the film's previous reminders, is love something that can be forced on the unsuspecting with a little magic?

The Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) has the answer and she's the only one who can make the potion. But she's locked up in the Bog King's dungeon. Her magic failed him; he holds a grudge.

With the players introduced and everyone's issues outlined, it's the perfect time for a war. Much action ensues, many surprising romantic fires are kindled, many more songs are sung. To recap: The look of the animation has limited charm. The story is primarily a string of life lessons for little ones, impossible to miss. And there is a great deal of singing. I don't think even fools will fall in love with "Strange Magic."

Twitter: @betsysharkey


'Strange Magic'

MPAA rated: PG for some action and scary images

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times