Have you ever watched a film and you had so many mixed thoughts and feelings about it you just did not know what to say? Well, that is exactly what happened with me when I watched Strange Magic, which is the newest film from Lucasfilm/Industrial Light and Magic since their Disney purchase.
When the trailers for Strange Magic were first released, I was still not entirely sure what the film was about. The trailers made it seem like it was an action adventure story while the information I could gather from internet synopses made it seem like a musical about love with elements from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then when the film was finally released in theaters, I heard nothing but negative feedback from both audiences and critics. The film was also a box office bomb, having a record-breaking bad debut. Despite all of that, I still wanted to keep an open mind and give the film a chance.
The film is not so much a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but rather takes its basic premise, a love potion spread by an imp resulting in chaos, and tells its own story with its own characters around that premise. Separated by a border of primroses, there are two kingdoms the Fairy Kingdom, which is populated by fairies, pixies and elves, and the Dark Forest, which is populated by goblins, insect creatures and imps. Primroses are the main ingredient for the love potion but Bog King, who rules the Dark Forest, banned the usage and creation of the potion and imprisoned the one creature who knows how to concoct it. Marianne is the eldest princess of the Fairy Kingdom. After getting her heart broken by her fiancé in the beginning of the film and decides to not tell anyone about it, she grows into a strong warrior and swears off love for good. Her younger sister Dawn however, wants to find love and dreams of finding the one person for her. When a love potion is brewed and is stolen by a mischievous imp, Bog King kidnaps Dawn in exchange for the love potion so that he may eradicate it.
In my opinion, the story of the film is a bit unconventional and odd. Personally, I enjoy such films. Though Strange Magic uses familiar elements such as a love potion, the movie takes advantage of such a premise and all the trouble it can cause.
I also really like how the creatures of the Fairy Kingdom and the creatures of the Dark Forest have different standards of beauty and what is considered desirable for a mate. For instance, female creatures with elongated ears and webbed appendages are considered lovable. One can love others and oneself, one can fall out of love, one can remember past love, one can find new love. Everyone does deserve to be loved and to know how much they are loved. Similar to real life, each culture has a unique view of what is beautiful and it is interesting to see such a sociological observation being reflected in the film.
One problem that I personally have with the movie is how it does not go into more detail about this magical world. We get a few minor details like where the fairies sleep and the usage and creation of boutonnieres but I just wish we had more detail about the cultures of the Dark Forest and the Fairy Kingdom, a little more world building. However, at the same time I understand considering the time constraints of a film.
One can love others and oneself, one can fall out of love, one can remember past love, one can find new love. Everyone does deserve to be loved and to know how much they are loved.
Like many animated films produced for families, the themes of Strange Magic are obvious from the beginning. Strange Magic is a film about love and as such many of the film’s themes deal with love. The movie deals with the difference between real, meaningful love and infatuation with the love potion being symbolic of the latter. Some characters learn what real love is and how it can be selfless and result in heroic actions one would not think themselves able to do otherwise. There are some characters who act hastily, as many of us do, when they are in love. Other characters learn the often times unforgiving realities and consequences of infatuation.
The film is also about love gone sour. Often times in fairy tales, the audience gets to see the main couple get together and we are led to believe they stay together. These stories hardly ever address the possibility of the relationship falling apart. In Strange Magic, we see the trust of a love relationship break and we see the consequences. Marianne and Bog must put themselves out there and give themselves to someone who could hurt them. These are themes that are very much grounded in reality and I personally appreciate the film for them all the more.
The film also touches upon the different kinds of love, such as love for family, friends and how their actions, though not always the best, come from a place of love. One can love others and oneself, one can fall out of love, one can remember past love, one can find new love. Everyone does deserve to be loved and to know how much they are loved. Though these are not new or complicated themes, they are ones that everyone, from the youngest child to an adult, can relate to and understand. They are timeless messages; they will carry and stay with people long after the end credits roll.
George Lucas had this to say about the film’s themes in an interview: “Real love is on the inside, with someone you have common ground with. You share the same values, you share the same interests, you share the same humor — things that will last you for the rest of your lives.”
Marianne is the eldest princess and a bit of an oddball. She does not mind getting dirty and she does not feel the need to have perfect hair like her sister Dawn. Though she has her reservations about the goblin people; she wants to make peace with them and says she will do just that once she becomes queen thus illustrating her ambitions and futuristic planning. After Roland breaks her heart, instead of letting that defeat her, she rises from the ashes of her heartbreak stronger, fiercer and more reserved. She becomes a capable and formidable warrior and does not need saving. She prefers to act first and ask questions later. She keeps her guard up and never trusts anyone. She would rather swordfight then attend festivals and flirt with guys. She views ruling her kingdom on her own as a blessing rather than a curse. She loves her sister and protects her from trouble. Throughout the film, she goes through real character development at a believable pace and through her interactions with Bog she grows into an even better character.
Bog King is the ruler of the Dark Forest and when we first meet him he is shrouded in shadow and believes love disrupts order and brings chaos. He has a tendency to act first and ask questions later, preferring to handle any problems in his kingdom on his own. He keeps his guard up and never trusts anyone. He is also a fierce, capable warrior. Similar to Marianne, Bog feels like a bit of an outsider as there is no other creature in his kingdom that looks quite like him. Though there is some fear felt by his subjects, especially when he becomes angry, it is clear that Bog does take good care of his people. They are all quite loyal to him and a few even address him with nicknames. Through the course of the film and his interactions with the fairy princesses, the audience gets to see a softer side to his character. We learn there is so much more to this character then his anger and physical appearance suggests.
Dawn is the younger, much more carefree princess. As stated before she dreams of finding her one true love. She is very flirty and often falls for every guy she meets. She loves parties and other social events. She is kind though like her sister she can be very stubborn. She does not like to be constantly looked after and protected by Marianne though at the same time she appreciates it. The relationship Dawn has with Marianne is admirable because they really care for each other but they still act like sisters. In one scene Marianne says to Dawn, “You drive me crazy!” and then she kisses her on the forehead.
Sunny is an elf and Dawn’s best friend. He does everything he can to help Dawn meet the right fairy for her. He is very fast, acrobatic and seems to be in charge of entertainment for festivals. It is clear from the beginning how much Sunny is in love with Dawn. It is these long held feelings that cause him to make rash decisions and act in questionable ways. The film does not explore or elaborate on Dawn’s feelings thus their relationship feels and is very one-sided.
I know I am in the minority but I personally really enjoyed the characters and found them to be entertaining and enjoyable to follow for a while.
Fairy King is the ruler of the Fairy Kingdom and is often exasperated by his two daughters. He wants to protect Dawn from making reckless decisions in regards to her love life and wants Marianne to be happy. He worries about Marianne and does not want her to be alone or rule the entire kingdom on her own. He wants her to have someone to share the burden and responsibilities of ruling a kingdom. His actions, though not always the best, do come from a place of love and wanting what is best for his daughters.
Roland is Marianne’s ex-fiancé and is also a part of the fairy military. Despite his good looks, he is power hungry, shallow, a liar and a cheat. In some ways, he reminded me of Gaston from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, mainly in how much he loves himself.
Griselda is Bog’s nosy mother and, like the Fairy King, does not want her only child to be sad and alone. Throughout the film she tries to set Bog up with various female creatures, much to his annoyance. Though she can be a bit overbearing and pushy, she does love her son and wants what is best for him. I personally found her to be very entertaining and amusing.
Stuff and Thang are Bog’s loyal goblin assistants. I personally really enjoyed every moment with these two characters. Their jokes, lines and interactions reminded me fondly of classic comedy teams such as Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy. Also, Thang’s love and fascination for boutonnieres is too adorable for words.
Imp is a mischievous creature who steals the love potion and uses it to spread chaos. He is not only adorable but also crafty, swift and quite intelligent, though he never says a word. Imp reminded me very much of Charlie Chaplin and his best-known character, The Tramp. Both characters cause trouble for no good reason and Imp’s movements were very Chaplin-esque, from his walk to his hand gestures and facial expressions.
I know I am in the minority but I personally really enjoyed the characters and found them to be entertaining and enjoyable to follow for a while. In my eyes, Marianne and Bog, the two main characters, and their genuine character development helps make up for the film’s issues with its narrative structure and other issues that I will touch upon later.
The animation is quite impressive. The backgrounds have a photo realistic style and it is easy to see the level of skill all of these animators have with the amount of detail in everything. From the plants, the textures, the skin of the characters to the nice looking designs and solid character animation, all of these details come together to create a beautifully looking animated feature. The film’s evocative fantasy and fairy imagery personally makes me fondly remember such imagery from films like Legend and even the beautiful illustrations of Brian Froud. I could also see influences from The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. This is not surprising since both films were collaborations with Jim Henson and Lucasfilm/Industrial Light and Magic.
Another element of the animation that I enjoy is the unique character designs. This world is populated by fairies, elves, imps and goblins and they all look like they come from the same world without losing any of their individuality. The fairy characters have butterfly attributes while also possessing traits typical of fairies such as pointed ears, thin bodies and cherubic faces. None of the fairies look identical to each other, which I personally appreciate. For instance, Marianne has dark eyes, purple wings and wide hips while her sister Dawn has a daintier physique with pink/orange wings depending on the light.
The characters that possess the most interesting and memorable designs however are Bog King and his fellow goblin subjects. Many of the goblins are heaver set with sharp fangs and possess attributes of animals one might find in a swamp. For example, some goblins are frog-like with webbed hands and toes while others are more lizard-like with long tails and forked tongues. Some goblins have bird-like beaks or elephant-like trunks. Basically, most of them look like a delightful mix of various creatures. Bog King looks like nothing else in the world of the film. He is extremely thin and quite tall. Like other goblins he possesses sharp fangs and claws but he also has armor that looks like it could be made out of bark or is possibly an exoskeleton. His wings are iridescent and when in use create a sound similar to that of a dragonfly or wasp. Even his eyes are different from other goblins as they are a lovely azure color.
The design choices are deliberate and meaningful and help to create a world that looks like it could really exist. Strange Magic is a film that does not focus on making its princesses flawless like Barbie dolls or its heroes handsome like Hollywood stars. Rather, the film has a unique look to it that is not often seen in the mainstream. One could make the argument this, in the end, is one of the reasons the film did not do well at the box office. Some critics found the art style and animation to be ugly or unappealing. Nevertheless, I personally cannot fault the designers and animators for willing and wanting to be different in the vast and limitless world of animation.
This is a jukebox musical and as such the film’s score is composed of different and popular songs from the last six decades. The audience hears songs from Beyoncé, Heart, Kelly Clarkson, Queen, Elvis Presley, The Four Seasons, Metallica and many more. In my opinion, all of the songs are wonderfully performed. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Stronger” sung by Marianne have such passion and conviction to them. Bog King sings “Trouble” and “Mistreated” which not only give him a rock star quality and illustrate his villainy but also show his vulnerability. The film’s use of modern songs reminded me very much of Moulin Rouge! and how a contemporary soundtrack was used to help tell the story. Incidentally, Marius De Vries was the music director for both Strange Magic and Moulin Rouge!
Unfortunately, the film does not have any quiet moments to allow the narrative to breathe as there is very little time in between each musical number. The result is serious pacing issues as the audience can have difficulty knowing how much time has passed between the songs and some of the songs come off as unnecessary. One of the reasons Disney musical films such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin work is because when songs are used they have their own purpose and time. The songs in those films provide transitions, plot exposition and there is enough time in between the songs to allow the characters and narrative to develop and grow.
Strange Magic does not have that, though as mentioned before there are some songs that do work to help tell the story. However, sometimes it seems that a song is used purely for its own sake rather than to help the story. Perhaps using a few less songs and adding more dialogue between the musical numbers would have fixed these problems. In addition, it would allow more development for some of the side characters which feels needed at several points in the film.
Strange Magic is by no means a perfect film. The structure of the narrative is not as strong as it could be and it is laced with pacing issues. Some of the side characters feel underdeveloped and one could say there are too many songs. However, in my opinion it is still an enjoyable adventure. In my eyes, the movie makes up for its problems with wonderful animation and character designs, spot on singing and voice acting, amusing side characters, well developed leads that both go through genuine character development, important themes about love and plenty of heart. Some people may find it an odd film with its strange look and jukebox musical style. Some people think its negatives outweigh its positives. I would be lying if I said I cannot understand where they are coming from.
Do I think this film has gotten more hate then it deserves?
Do I think it is the greatest animated film ever?
However, I do think there are many things to admire about the film and are worth people’s time. Like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal before it, I do not think it will be too long before Strange Magic earns cult classic status.
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