Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2015

Strange Magic

Shakespeare plays the hits

Fairy-tale 'Midsummer' adaptation 'Strange Magic' has already secured a place as the year's worst musical

Strange Magic
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Gary Rydstrom
Screenplay: Irene Mecchi, Gary Rydstrom and David Berenbaum
Starring: The voices of Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Sam Palladio, Meredith Anne Bull, Alfred Molina, Maya Rudolph and Kristin Chenoweth
Rated PG / 1 hour, 39 minutes
January 23, 2015
(out of four)

No matter what movies come out over the course of 2015, and no matter how many, Strange Magic is still guaranteed to have the worst soundtrack of the year. Give me a movie wall-to-wall with the collected works of Nickelback, Fall Out Boy and Pitbull and I would be more willing to give that a chance than to sit through this torturous jukebox musical again.

What makes all the bad karaoke even more unbearable is just how constant it is. We never go more than five minutes without someone breaking into song. But like any other musical, this one lives and dies by the quality of its musical numbers - which, in this case, is to say Strange Magic is dead on arrival. I don't even know where to begin, frankly. I'll say this: I actually kinda like the visual design of this movie; and as story ideas go, an animated fairy-tale version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is as good as any, I suppose. But that music ...

OK, imagine cutesy renditions of songs from The Temptations, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley, The Troggs, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Queen and Kelly Clarkson (among many others), accompanied by elevator music, or what sounds like cheap, computerized imitations of actual orchestration. It's not just that the film has no showstoppers - there's not even an attempt at a showstopper. It's all just manufactured to be cute, sweet and pleasant - which, for the discerning listener, just makes it all the more unpleasant to sit through.

Some of the actors sing well enough - certainly Kristin Chenoweth, for example, knows what she's doing. But when even a seasoned Broadway singer like her can't even deliver a memorable take on Love is Strange, you know something's wrong. (The electric guitar riffs in that number are especially awful.)

You'd assume the music part of this whole equation was the driving creative idea. And given the sheer percentage of the film's 99-minute runtime dedicated to the music, presumably a lot of effort was spent on it. So why, then, do the songs feel, artistically, like such an afterthought? There's so much detail in the visuals, and yet the music sounds like it was done in a quickie recording session with second-rate musicians. The only tolerable number is the title song (a duet by Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming), and I wouldn't even say it's good - just a passable take on the ELO hit.

Looking back on the things I did like about Strange Magic, I'd be genuinely curious to see how well the film would have worked if the musical idea had been thrown out, allowing director Gary Rydstrom and his writers to focus on the storytelling. It certainly wouldn't have solved everything - for one thing, the characterizations Rydstrom gets out of his voice actors are often grating, as they seem to be going for something far too precious, like the tone of a Saturday morning cartoon - but it at least would have afforded them the time to expand on the world and the characters a bit, and perhaps riff on the Shakespeare play a bit more cleverly.

Written by Rydstrom, Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum based on an idea by George Lucas (which hasn't been a good thing for, oh, three decades or so), Strange Magic is set in a magical land split into two distinct parts: the Fairy Kingdom - full of flowers and rainbows, singing and dancing and romance - and the Dark Forest, full of dread and rot and despair. The story centers around Marianne (voiced by Wood), the heiress to the throne and fiancée of the dashing but unfaithful, would-be warmonger Roland (Sam Palladio), who's only marrying her for her power, and for the size of the army he expects will come with it.

But she discovers his infidelity just before the wedding and swears off love forever. Meanwhile, there's her kid sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) - constantly lovestruck, seemingly to a new boy each week - and the loyal, groveling elf Sunny (Elijah Kelley) who's secretly in love with her. He's so desperate for her affection, in fact, that he forms an unholy alliance with Roland, agreeing to go after a mythical love potion that will be mutually beneficial to both Sunny and Roland. The trouble is, the only person who knows how to make the love potion is the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth), who has been imprisoned in the Dark Forest by the odious Bog King (Cumming). He has banished romance from his domain - the result of a sob story from many years earlier - and would like nothing more than to eradicate the concept altogether.

Some of the character design - particularly the Bog King - is one of the many reasons the film begins to feel like a missed opportunity at times. Rydstrom and his animators have a knack for giving the scaly ugliness of the Bog King and the drab, rocky featurelessness of his underground dwelling a sort of strange beauty. Not all of the animation works quite as well, but there's plenty to suggest a better movie is lurking somewhere underneath. Or at least a significantly different one.

Unfortunately, that movie - wherever it is, and whatever quality it might have been - is drowned out by a cavalcade of shabby, tin-eared covers of top-40 hits and pop standards, some of which weren't all that good to begin with. With all this movie is attempting - musically or cinematically - I can't imagine what audience it could possibly reach. It is simultaneously an affront to Shakespeare, musicals and good taste.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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