Gary Rydstrom’s Strange Magic is a nice film. But, as Mr. Sondheim reminds us, nice is different than good. It is a nice film for several reasons, chief among them being the central plot itself. Predictably for a film based on a story by George Lucas, the story takes place in a Manichean world where the colorful, joyful Fairy Kingdom shares a border with the evil Dark Forest. At the metaphorical (and literal) border between light and dark, primrose flowers grow which are harvested to make love potions. The film follows a handful of characters from the Fairy Kingdom as they travel into the Dark Forest to rescue the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth), the only creature able to actually make the love potions. One thing leads to another and a little imp gets ahold of a love potion and runs amok making random creatures fall in love with each other like a hyperactive version of Shakespeare’s Puck.
Also like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film doesn’t follow one protagonist. Instead, it switches back and forth between a number of different character arcs: Princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) swears off love after being cheated on, makes herself a swashbuckling costume that wouldn’t look out of place among the Lost Boys in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), teaches herself sword-fighting, and sets off to singlehandedly rescue her sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) after she is kidnapped by the evil Bog King; Sunny the Elf (Elijah Kelley) travels to the Dark Forest twice, first to rescue the aforementioned Sugar Plum Fairy so she can make him a love potion for Dawn, the object of his affection, and second to also rescue her after she is kidnapped; the vain fairy Roland (Sam Palladio) cheats, lies, steals, and manipulates others in order to win the hand of Princess Marianne so he can take control of her kingdom’s army; and the wicked Bog King (Alan Cumming) does everything he can to wipe out the forces of love… especially after his prisoner Dawn is accidentally dosed with love potion and falls head-over-heels in love with him.
Twee? Certainly. But it seeks to give important lessons to children: you shouldn’t judge based on appearances; you can’t make someone love you by force; people should have the right to choose whom they love. And lest I give readers the impression that this is a saccharine, unbearably cutesy movie, I should point out that the film isn’t afraid to get a bit dark. My favorite scene was when Princess Marianne and the Bog King first discover their love for each other through their mutual hatred of lovey-dovey nonsense and their inability to trust other people. That’s a surprisingly deep idea for a children’s film: that broken people can fall in love, too.
Another thing that Strange Magic has that many other children’s movies these days don’t is atmosphere. Take, for example, Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life (2014). That film had some of the most inspired and original art and animation that I had seen in years. And yet its story was so jerky and rushed that the audience was never given a moment to truly appreciate the visuals or let the mood of the narrative sink in. On the other hand, Strange Magic is both beautiful and well paced. Emotionally significant moments are given plenty of breathing room for the audience to actually appreciate them. The Dark Forest is a gloomy, shadowy place that feels threatening and unwelcoming. There are actual establishing shots for locations, a technique which has seemingly fallen out of favor with most children’s movies these days.
As to be expected from Lucasfilm Ltd., the production values are second to none. Every single character has a distinct design (notice how each fairy has different wing patterns). The differences between characters are a bit harder to spot in the more homogenous Fairy Kingdom, but every single creature and critter in the Dark Forest has a unique, original design. The little details are my favorite parts: the battle armor for Roland’s squirrel-mount; that the Sugar Plum Fairy’s cage is made of spider webs; how a giant guard in the Dark Forest uses two smaller guards as earplugs when Dawn won’t stop singing.
So why then is Strange Magic a “nice film” and not a “good film?” I think it’s because the film doesn’t have enough faith in itself to let the story, visuals, and atmosphere speak for themselves. The comedic relief is turned up to eleven with hardly a minute going by without some ancillary character making some kind of quip (“My life is flashing before my eyes!!… WOW, I was HOT!!”). Many of the performances are overly theatrical. Wood especially delivers many of her lines as Princess Marianne like she was onstage instead of in a recording studio. The fact that the film is a musical doesn’t help, either. To be fair, none of the musical choices are out-of-place, although the first impromptu performance of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love borders on cringe-inducing.
Walt Disney mastered the act of balancing upbeat yet atmospheric children’s movies with musical numbers. But the big difference between the early films of Walt Disney and Strange Magic is that Disney included original songs that were written especially for his films. Whenever a song shows up in Strange Magic (and they are all old copyrighted pop songs, mind you), there is a moment of recognition that spoils the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Even worse, the characters seem to know that they are singing old pop songs and that we, the audience, know that they know that they are singing old pop songs.