Warning: May Contain Some Mild Spoilers
I recently had the pleasure of watching Strange Magic, a delightful if fragmented tale of magic, mayhem and love triumphing over cynicism.
It’s rare for me to review works from mainstream or well-established studios and publishers. I prefer to focus on the off-beat or the overlooked. Strange Magic, released by Disney via Touchstone, was greeted with almost universal critical disdain. That, combined by Disney’s lackluster publicity campaign, resulted in a film that was both a critical and commercial failure.
But did it deserve this fate?
One always knows what to expect when it comes to most Disney, Pixar or Dreamwork films. You can almost picture the creative teams working their way through a checklist with each project. This might make for a smoother, more easily digested film than Strange Magic. But it can also lead to a blander one.
Strange Magic has all the energy and mania of a rock concert. It could have benefited from a checklist. There were some pacing issues and the narrative structure could have been stronger. But those are common issues found in many Disney and Pixar works. If you can get through the first somewhat saccharine 15 minutes, you’ll find this is a much quirkier film than its Pixar or Disney counter-parts.
But it’s the animation and visual aesthetic that makes Strange Magic stand out. The animation is excellent and the environments are beautifully rendered. There’s a meticulous attention to detail that’s absent from more stylized CGI. Movements, lighting and texturing are top-notch and set a new industry standard for 3D films aimed at a particular demograph.
Both the characters and the world in which they move are superbly rendered and beautifully lit. Expressions often fall on the more subtle end of the spectrum. Best of all, characters appear to think. You can witness thoughts forming in their mind simply by watching their faces.
Then there’s the approach to music. Musical animations tend to adhere closely to the structure of a stage musical. Theme and motivation are often set-up with a “I am/I want” song by the main protagonist. In Strange Magic, it’s the opposite. The female protagonist sings a song about what she doesn’t want – a song rejecting love.
This breaks away from convention but it also carries the risk of confusing the audience. Furthermore, later songs in the film are not used to clarify events or themes but rather, to meditate on the different aspects of love. But if one doesn’t see it that way, the song choices can appear random and nonsensical.
Strange Magic, like all jukebox musicals, uses popular songs as its musical score. Not everyone will enjoy this approach but it’s as valid a form of musical as any. I found it particularly unfair that some critics, who were apparently ignorant of the jukebox genre, dismissed the film based on the musical score.
The music consists of a delightful medley of classic love songs and rock, mostly from the last century. Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood do a particularly memorable rendition of “Wild Thing.” The songs are staged as events, break-out musical numbers reminiscent of Moulin Rouge.
Strange Magic is a solid movie that was sabotaged by bad marketing, a poorly chosen release date, and critics who were over-eager to emphasize its weak points and overlook its many strengths. In fact, the venom which some of them displayed reminded me of the original critical response to classics such as Blade Runner and Labyrinth.
All reviews are subjective to a degree but many of the Strange Magic reviews reveal a possible bias against the film. One wonders how many of the reviewers approached it from a neutral perspective. Disney seemed determined to treat the film like an unwanted stepchild, an obligation that accompanied their acquisition of Lucas films. One wonders if this attitude, combined with the film’s grossly mishandled promotion and January release (a time often reserved for films expected to under-perform), may have influenced some critics.
Yet I will continue to defend Strange Magic because it offers almost unmatched animation quality, a rich atmospheric world and a cast that breaks away from the usual cookie-cutter characterization.
While the female protagonists echo the Disney princess archetype, they come across as both lively and individual. The male character who most resembles the typical Prince Charming is revealed to be nothing more than a handsome face and a power-hungry heart, a different aspect of the prince from Frozen. The main pairings in the movie are refreshing: a clever play on love overcoming class and race barriers. Sunny stands out as a character who transcends the typically neutered roles reserved for animated side-kicks voiced by African-Americans.
The story and themes unfold in ways which are unfamiliar to the target audience. No clear antagonist is set-up until later in the story. The characters are motivated by multiple desires, not just one. The superficial themes are less important than the implied ones.
In some ways, this makes Strange Magic more adult than your average animated romp. All the important elements are expressed through characters’ expressions, body language, casual dialogue and song choices.
The movie is more layered than it first appears. Superficially, it’s a romantic retelling of Beauty and The Beast. Go deeper and it’s about a young woman reacting against society’s expectations. On another level, it explores the conflict between genders and their search for common ground and shared experiences.
It can even be read as a reaction against a general internet belief that a female character is only strong or interesting if she rejects any interest in heterosexual love. While I, like many others, would like to see more LGBT love stories targeted at all ages, I don’t feel justified condemning a heterosexual one simply because it is heterosexual. That’s akin to dismissing Brokeback Mountain because it focused on a same-sex relationship. While Strange Magic isn’t hugely progressive, it still promotes the message that everyone deserves to be loved.
Marianne, the main female lead, is a powerful, independent woman who never needs to be rescued and still manages to find love without having to compromise what makes her unique.
While suitable for all ages, the film manages to subtly play with phallic symbolism. When Marianne first rejects love, she arms herself with a phallic symbol in the form of a sword. At the start of the film, Roland, her soon-to-be-ex fiancee, doesn’t want her touching one. Later, after winning their climatic fight, she pointedly drops a sword. The symbolism of this act will be lost on no one. After trying to resolve her issues with techniques associated with the existing masculine “power-over” system, she finally rejects it and finds other methods through which to empower herself.
Throughout the film, Marianne repeatedly rejects the existing patriarchal order (in the form of her father’s choices and attempts to strip her of autonomy.) Rather than rely on him or Roland, she goes off by herself to rescue her sister, Dawn. The true “love story” is between her and Dawn. Dawn is innocent, easily wooed, and starry-eyed; she represents Marianne’s capacity to love or, more importantly, to trust.
Both the Bog King and Marianne are distrustful of love and of the opposite gender. Their ability to find common ground helps them overcome this mistrust. Communication, not conflict, leads to an understanding.
It’s interesting to note that only the male characters want to use the love potion. By the end of the film, both Sunny and the Bog King have come to the realization that love cannot be forced – it must be earned. It’s only limited chauvinists like Roland who refuse to accept this.
While some of the romance was trite, it was still refreshing to see a movie in which communication and mutual respect is valued more highly than conflict.
Those looking for a conventionally structured 3D movie will be disappointed. The best way to view Strange Magic would be as an hour and half long concert tied together by the same cast and a loose plot. As such, it’s a pleasure for the senses and thoroughly enjoyable.
The Henson-like quality of the characters and the film’s rare ability to evoke a sense of genuine magic makes this more than a mere product. While the plot may not be original, the movie itself manages to be unique. It’s this unusual aesthetic, combined with superb animation and voice acting, that makes it memorable.
Strange Magic will continue to enchant future generations long after more conventional animated blockbusters have faded from our collective memory.