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Strange Magic
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by Jay Seaver

"No buried gem, but not quite the debacle I'd feared."
3 stars

I wanted "Strange Magic" to be good (and dreaded it being otherwise) a bit more than most movies. It will, after all, likely be the last screen credit for George Lucas other than "based upon 'Star Wars' created by", and no matter how much his legacy has soured for many, it would be nice to see him retire on something good. It's directed by Gary Rydstrom, who has done a lot of great sound work and directed two animated shorts for Pixar. Plus, I've got an eight-year-old niece who loves fairies. It mostly winds up a mess, but I'll take that over hating it.

It takes place on the border of the Fairy Kingdom and Dark Forest, which is where the primroses that can be used to make love potions grow. Or would, if the Bog King (voice of Alan Cumming) didn't both make sure the plants were cut down by his goblins as soon as they bloomed and keep the Sugar Plum Fairy (voice of Kristin Chenoweth) who can make such things locked up. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, fairy princess Marianne (voice of Evan Rachel Wood) is about to marry handsome soldier Roland (voice of Sam Palladio) when she catches him cheating. She doesn't take it well, but her sister Dawn (voice of Meredith Anne Bull) is still boy-crazy, much to the chagrin of best friend Sunny the elf (voice of Elijah Kelly). Roland, still wanting to be king someday, convinces Sunny that a love potion could help them win the sisters' hearts, although those things tend to attract trouble-making imps.

The script is a bit of a mess at points, and like a lot of movies meant for girls but (mostly) written by men, it often has trouble not playing into the stereotypes even as it wants to rise above them. For example, the writers know that "love potions" are dishonest shortcuts, but they aren't going to fully confront how horrible they are, and that seems kind of weak so soon after Maleficent. The characters' personalities could be a little sharper, especially the ladies - Dawn kind of needs her own thing other than being attracted to the guy of the moment, and Marianne's shift from flighty and clumsy to sword-swinging tough girl is kind of clumsy.

Also kind of clumsy - the amount of songs on the soundtrack, none (as far as I can tell) actually composed for the movie, and a lot of it stuff not pitched at the target audience's parents, but their grandparents, shoehorned into the story and kind of flattened out into a fairly homogeneous style. And yet... Everything from "Can't Help Falling in Love" to "Three Little Birds" to, yes, "Strange Magic" is a catchy song that the cast generally has the voices for (it's not really Evan Rachel Wood's or Alan Cumming's fault that their more electric-guitar-heavy bits just don't fit with the setting), with composer Marius De Vries and music supervisor Steven Gizicki re-arranging them into something that works - the score leads in and out of these selections, rather than stopping dead for a pop song - winds up kind of cute. It's the sort of thing where the "trying hard" part of "trying too hard" overcomes how hackneyed the idea is.

It's also a pretty good-looking movie. It doesn't have the huge budget of a Pixar or DreamWorks production, but Industrial Lights & Magic both spawned Pixar and has been at or near the top of the visual effects field for decades, and their first full animated feature is as polished as one might expect. They seem to have more fun as the creature and character designs get further from the humanoid fairies, and between the animators and Rydstrom, it's rare that a shot is not clear and effective. There's neat stuff there, like the Sugar Plum Fairy's cell or the mushrooms that relay news to the Bog King.

A drawn-out number or two at the end may make a viewer forget that the movie has moments where it's fairly snappy and clever, and that's kind of fair: Those good moments aren't really enough to erase how stitched-together much of this movie is. But I smiled enough watching it to not regret the ticket, which is better than what I expected going into it.

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originally posted: 01/26/15 16:32:28
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  23-Jan-2015 (PG)
  DVD: 19-May-2015


  DVD: 19-May-2015

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