There are good things in the animated musical fantasy “Strange Magic”: the ultra-detailed, photorealistic animation; the name-that-tune pleasures of a mashup-jukebox soundtrack; fine vocal performances from the cast’s actor-singers; and a transcendent sequence featuring the 1975 title song.
And then there’s the rest of the film.
“Strange Magic” borrows the notion of fairies having misadventures with a love potion in the woods from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the growingly popular, “Glee”-ful musical approach of “Happy Feet,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Moulin Rouge!” (on which composer and musical director Marius de Vries also worked). It also borrows the lack of characterization and other discomfiting deficiencies from the more notorious works of George Lucas, who generated the story.
The beautiful fairy Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is set to marry handsome but loathsome fairy Roland (Sam Palladio) for no apparent reason. He cheats and she swears off love, becoming a master swordsfairy. Marianne’s lovely sister Dawn (newcomer Meredith Anne Bull) is boy(fairy) crazy. BFF elf Sunny (Elijah Kelley) pines for her – it seems unthinkable for the beautiful fairies to love the simple, shall we say, less-beautiful, worker-class elves (who look more like troll dolls anyway). Meanwhile, the unsightly Bog King (Alan Cumming) wants to eradicate love, which means when Sunny acquires a passion potion to aid Roland’s schemes, there’s a-gonna be a fight. Singing ensues.
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The film is aimed squarely at kids, despite the prominence of ’50s and ’60s hits such as “Love Is Strange” and “Tell Him.” There are also heaping helpings of Kelly Clarkson, Black Eyed Peas, and just a soupcon of Lady Gaga.
The music, the film’s lifeblood, has energy and inventive spirit. Cumming proves yet again he is an extraordinarily versatile talent, and Wood is a revelation as a singer, given the opportunity to show more range and expression than in “Across the Universe.” Bull is charming and sweet of voice, and stalwarts such as Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, and even Peter Stormare chip in admirably.
One wishes the moribund story and dialogue and empty characters enjoyed the same jolt of energy.
Such fare is rarely intended for scrutiny beyond the surface (ironically, considering the film’s message of finding beauty in unexpected places). But, as with the Ghost of Jar Jars Past, that kid-focus means here that characters and relationships are painfully simplistic, drawn with the broadest of strokes. The dialogue is uninspired, despite the talent of the performers delivering it.
The plot movement feels very much like an unpleasant formality, shoved forward by tiresome devices. The fairy king cheerfully humiliates his betrayed daughter in front of the whole community by throwing her together with the cowardly climber who messed around on the eve of their wedding. Kidnapping is excusable when someone ends up in love. Romantic bonding occurs over a fight to the death.
There is a memorable sequence which conveys the film’s central idea. To a gorgeous reworking of Electric Light Orchestra’s hit used as the title song, Bog King takes Marianne on a tour of his initially frightening domain, revealing the beauty within.
It’s an effective moment infused with just the strangeness and magic one wishes were present in the rest of the film.