That tilt-shifty sensation, that interplay of focus and colour intensity, immediately draws you into a different world. You know you’re peering into a tiny realm, and it feels tiny to you in a way A Bug’s Life failed to convey. This sense of rich immersive depth – achieved without using 3D – is a very important point, because Strange Magic is basically an experiment, and the story is unimportant. Music, acting, script, are not KPIs at all.
That LucasFilm Idiosyncrasy
This was the first time the media was invited to a movie preview at the in-house theatre of The Sandcrawler, where George Lucas explained that the story is an old one that has been told “over and over” and, like Star Wars, it has “nothing new in it”. It is long known that the story of Strange Magic is an old trope, so one wonders why critics have panned this for being “unimaginative”.
Indeed, this movie isn’t really a movie at all. It is a shell of a movie, and it has two main purposes. The first was pure self-indulgence in that Lucas did this just for fun. It’s a bit hard to argue whether the “audience satisfaction” metric has been satisfied because, in a sense, there is no target audience. Sure, it has been crafted as a story for 12-year-old girls, and Lucas hopes boys will see it – the way Star Wars was written for 12-year-old boys but girls like it too. But a structural gearing is merely form and not substance. And given Lucas’ role in the story, he himself will not enjoy the film meaningfully as an audience member in the way he (hopefully) will for The Force Awakens.
The second main purpose of the film is technical. Lucas has been busy with experimental films, including digital art techniques, and this film is the one that Kathleen Kennedy mentioned little over a year ago when The Sandcrawler was officially opened in Singapore’s sexed-up Ayer Rajah 2.0 media-centric industrial park, avant-gardely called “one-North”. This film is the culmination of a strategic economic investment to showcase the success of a digital art sweatshop. First, there were the early days of bringing The Sandcrawler up to speed, and this is typified by Star Wars: The Clone Wars – pretty much a spiritual successor to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as a spin-off used primarily to test and push new technology. Next, there was the foray into Rango. Now, we have the first LucasFilm animated feature film produced almost entirely in Singapore. Want something to fixate on? Check out the Fair King’s chest jewel and the tooled patterns in his armour, as well as the orchid-like texture of the Fairy Cronies’ heads. That’s pushing the technical limits of animation, and stretching attention to detail to LOTR-ish proportions.
Apart from the voice acting, overall artistic direction and preparatory work such as casting, Strange Magic was produced by the Jawas of this gleaming steel-and-glass eco-friendly tropical Sandcrawler.
Can’t Help Falling in Love
But it would take a determined industry insider to fully appreciate the true deliverables: the texturing, rendering, shadows, the animation of butterfly wings flapping and folding, virtual camerawork and everything else that makes Strange Magic yet another crown jewel in LucasFilm’s Tower of London. Most lesser mortals would be too distracted by the music.
The soundtrack here is Lucas’ “Top 25 other-than-those-in-American-Graffiti”, and some of them have been used to very good effect. The opening song, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, was well-played. Even Lady Gaga was used in a rather hilarious and menacing, yet non-nauseating way.
But what’s the plot?
Well, we see highly familiar elements of any star-crossed (but ultimately happy) lovers’ tale. It is in fact quite autobiographical – Lucas met his current wife at age 60, a third of the way through the 15 years it took to make this movie.
So, princesses Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Dawn (Meredith Ann Bull) are the only children of the Fairy King (Alfred Molina, but the character sure looks like Lucas). Marianne is about to wed Roland (Sam Palladio), the narcissistic, power-hungry Gaston of Fairyland. Sunny the Dark-skinned Elf (Elijah Kelly, hired based on his performance in Red Tails) looks like a Dam troll doll, and is basically a lower-caste peon in love with the blonde and highly flirtatious Dawn.
Adjacent to Fairyland in a ying-yang sort of way is the Dark Forest, controlled by the mantis-like glam rocker Bog King (Alan Cumming) still living with his comic-relief mother Griselda (Maya Rudolph) who keeps matchmaking him with various female creepy-crawlies. The Dark Forest is, well, dark and shaded. Much like the LucasFilm and ILM areas on the third and fourth levels of The Sandcrawler. Fairyland is, of course, bright and cheerful like the fifth and sixth levels of The Sandcrawler, rented by Disney.
The loveless Lucas, I mean, the Bog King wants to destroy the love potion – there’s your MacGuffin right there. If possible, he would destroy love itself for reasons that we will not spoil, and so far only known to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) who is pretty much a “is-she-naked?” Hindu goddess version of Robin William’s genie in Aladdin. Songs, action, sudden mass choreography and Riverdancing, angsty young lady’s emo goth makeup transformation, flowerpower sitar riffs, kaleidoscope eyes, all form the tapestry of a familiar tale told in new ways.
Oh, and then there’s Imp (Brenda Chapman), the somewhat-diabolical fluffy bunny that is this film’s version of Scrat from Ice Age, only more intelligent and successful. So much for having a clear purpose for a character.
Tributes to other movies are everywhere, some subtle, some in-your-face, and more than one allusion to Star Wars (Luke Skywalker’s fight with the training probe being the most obvious).
The film’s shortcomings, going by traditional rubrics, are legion. The writing was meh, the characters seem soulless, the songs not always well-integrated. Of course, given the film’s declared purpose and objectives, it’s pretty much a case of “who cares?”. Lucas’ comments against the Academy around the time of the premiere, are also quite relevant here. In fact, they might have attracted the slew of negative that has been flooding the Internet the past couple of days.
Still, one wonders how much this story is truly for kids. The scene with Marianne and Luca – I mean, er, Boggy panting after a fight was almost post-coital, and that spine-tickle was perky, if not outright erotic. Also, were the mushrooms … Vietcong? And yes, Lucas is a child of the 60s, but the hippie psychedelia seemed a little out of place for a pre-teen audience. And there’s a really icky post-credits scene that’s almost zoophilic.
But hey, Lucas doesn’t care about whether critics love this movie. And why should he? After all, critics also panned Star Wars. So where are we with the 5-star rating? Nowhere. It’s either a flat 2.5 or “not applicable”. This is a George Lucas movie, guys. Remember that the first six Star Wars movies were indie films – just made by a very big independent production house. They are their own genre.