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Strange Magic

LucasFilm Animation (January 23 2015), Touchstone Home Entertainment (May 19 2015), single disc, 99 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

Even having watched Strange Magic, I still can’t tell you what it was actually about…something about a bad guy ending up finding out that anyone can find love, even in the most impossible (and improbable…and tedious) of places.

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The Sweatbox Review:

A long time ago, in a galaxy seemingly farther and farther away, the tagline “from the mind of George Lucas” on a poster would have caused waves of excitement at what the Star Wars master had dreamed up next. A celebrated and, at one time, authentic auteur of the independent filmmaking world, Lucas had started as a documentarian for his mentor Francis Ford Coppola, won critical acclaim in the early 1970s for his dystopian thriller THX-1138, based on his filmschool short, and found huge commercial success with American Graffiti, which arguably kicked off America’s 1970s fixation with all things 1950s, resulting at the other end of the decade with the massive throwback success of star Ron Howard in television’s Happy Days and the movie smash Grease.

Lucas also had a hit around this time, of course, with a little movie called Star Wars, made when he couldn’t land the rights to Flash Gordon (looking back, many Lucas projects have been borne out of frustrations in not being able to pursue existing properties – Indiana Jones was a James Bond substitute when his pal Steven Spielberg couldn’t get onto a 007 picture). At a time when movies used to play in theaters indefinitely, Star Wars ran for over a year, became the biggest smash of the time and changed film releasing forever, its two sequels allowing Lucas to play the Hollywood studio game on his own terms, creating post-production facilities for visual effects (Industrial Light & Magic), audio (Skywalker Sound) and a computer animation division that later became Pixar.

Essentially proving to be a very deep pocketed independent, Lucas used his own money to improve film presentation, first in collaboration with Dolby Laboratories and later with the THX program, as well as turning LucasFilm into its own studio, producing the Indiana Jones trilogy for Spielberg and such films in the mid-1980s as the extremely overlooked Tucker: The Man And His Dream for Coppola (who had fallen out of favor after a string of duds early in the decade), Labyrinth with Jim Henson (who had done so much to make the other-worldly creatures of the Star Wars films, particularly Yoda, work), and helping to both establish and nurture younger and first-time directors such as Howard on Willow and Walter Murch on the chaotic Return To Oz set, respectively.

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An ongoing dabbling with animation (the stop-motion Twice Upon A Time was an early experiment) resulted in the creation of the unit later sold to Steve Jobs as Pixar, while ILM forged forward with its own pioneering use of CGI for such groundbreaking effects in films as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park (both before Pixar changed the face of animated features with Toy Story in 1995). LucasFilm Animation was founded to take the Star Wars saga off in new directions with the Clone Wars series, while ILM was also getting into the feature animation arena by providing the visuals for Rango, a unique, off-kilter western.

Headed up by the Pirates Of The Caribbean pairing of director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp, Rango was largely an unexpected delight and more than a moderate hit…animation had a new player on the block and we couldn’t wait to see what Lucas Animation and ILM would come up with next. After a brief flurry of excitement in an announcement that ILM would be teaming with Paramount for a series of films, the answer eventually turned out to be seemingly “nothing”…until the rather sudden sale of LucasFilm to the Disney organisation, bringing it back to a fold with Pixar, which the Mouse had also previously brought in-house. Within days there was news of new Star Wars projects, and then, suddenly, a poster and release date for a hitherto unknown animated film, Strange Magic, was issued. It was a move that didn’t suggest Disney had the highest regard for the film, and the initial images didn’t exactly excite potential fans either…

How right everyone was!

Now it has to be said that, from the late 80s onward, Lucas had become more of an advocate for film than being noted as a filmmaker himself, and the infamous flop of Howard The Duck was ultimately, in hindsight, a pointer for what was to come rather than being an unfortunate blip in an otherwise phenomenally successful run. A return to directing with the much anticipated Star Wars prequel trilogy and to producing with a fourth Indiana Jones adventure, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, resulted in films widely derided even by their staunchest fans, when the strong early storytelling of Lucas’ career mixed with what wonders his own filmmaking empire could now achieve should have resulted in exceptional movies. Interestingly, it maybe now seems that Lucas himself, preparing to leave the film arena for good after the sale of his company to Disney, was having one last return to past glories before his exit.

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A supposed and quite literal attempt at a fairytale, the very strange Strange Magic follows suit, returning to Lucas’ love of pop music to provide an ongoing soundtrack to each scene, although where American Graffiti was a 50s jukebox of non-stop hits and interconnecting stories, this packs itself too much with a (very poor) iPod playlist from the past few decades, taking in all manner of too-eclectic choices presumably with an eye on a potential blockbuster soundtrack release. The template seems to be Moulin Rouge!, with characters voicing their otherwise-dialogue through popular songs, but where Baz Luhrmann knew not to hang a too-sophisticated story around his visual and aural delights, Strange Magic can’t help but pack every frame with too much: too much picture information, too much sound, too much singing, shouting, fairy effects…too much everything!

This chaos isn’t as anywhere as infectious as Moulin Rouge!, and the story and characters seem to end up playing second fiddle to packing in as many songs as possible so that nothing is really set up or can pay off with any impact. Clearly Lucas wanted to make some kind of modern classic to sit aside the great animated musicals, but without original songs it’s already off to a false start and everything is all a bit too confused with so much going on all the time. Worst of all, Strange Magic never really ever takes the time to make any kind of emotional impact or to stop and breathe for even a scene. Considering that Pixar’s earliest founders started at LucasFilm all those years ago, these “students” have certainly outgrown their old mentor, Strange Magic’s attempt to be relevant in the current feature animation landscape coming off as the embarrassing equivalent of a Dad dancing at their teenage child’s school disco. Goodness knows it’s a surprise that Gary Rydstrom is the named director here, especially after the classy restraint that was Pixar’s short Lifted.

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No-one, given the chance, would ever turn down the chance to helm a LucasFilm animated feature – at least they would know the film would get exposure, although in this case the real problem is precisely that: that the film got exposure! Not too much exposure though, going by Disney’s lackluster release, seemingly none too bothered about preserving Rydstrom’s standing with Pixar’s Lasseter, also head of Disney Animation, and dumping the movie out through their now occasional Touchstone banner probably due to some contractual requirements than a real want for audiences to actually see it. On one hand I’m surprised, given their clear disdain, that they didn’t sell it off as with last summer’s Earth To Echo, but on the other I guess there was always a chance the competition-free late January/February slot that had worked so well for a run of direct-to-video turned theatrical hits in the early 2000s might have unexpectedly provided a Gnomeo & Juliet type hit.

The Studio clearly didn’t have any such real hopes of success, unplanned or otherwise: with a new Star Wars on the way, the marketing could have played on anticipation by way of a more enticing poster tagline, hyping the film “from the creator of Star Wars” and luring fans in to provide at least a decent opening weekend by attaching an exclusive Force Awakens teaser trailer to the front of it. However Disney, to give them their due in not chasing the easy dollar, chose not to do this, and I wonder if it wasn’t actually a counter measure to control damage limitation – given the reaction to Lucas’ name recently and his last prequel trilogy, I don’t think I would want anyone thinking the new Star Wars – which is aiming to play heavily as a continuation of the much more celebrated original trilogy – might be anything like this either!

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Strange Magic is, simply, a right mess, with the busy visuals and song-filled soundtrack overwhelming everything else. As such, the rules of this world are not set, character motivation is always unclear, and the plot lurches along without any point or explanation – and this really comes from the man (preserved as a visual reference here in the Fairy King’s design) who wrote the multi-layered Graffiti and structurally tight original Star Wars movie? At least the characters don’t look like they would be out of place in a Star Wars movie: I know Blue Sky’s Epic was touched on in theatrical reviews, although I was much more reminded of Luc Besson’s Arthur And The Minimoys films, and even more strangely the ostensible villain resembled Pete Docter as he would look if he was a Bug’s Life grasshopper!

In the end it doesn’t really matter how good, bad or ugly the designs are, because the characters are largely unlikable and therefore un-relatable, acting at times like they’re in a CG version of some surreal nightmare version of a bad Don Bluth movie and making sudden character trait changes amongst other random choices. For instance, our supposed hero bears a not so passing resemblance to Elvis in voice: sure, this could be a fun comedic element, but it doesn’t match his blond-beefcake design, while the rest of the cast are a mix of voiceover artists and bigger name actors, including Rachel Evan Wood and Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth, who do their best with the material but deserve so much better. As a fan of Moulin Rouge! my wife decided to sit and watch this with me…but after she nodded off less than 15 minutes in, and knowing there was still an hour and a half of this mess left, I didn’t have the heart to wake her up!

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Indeed, a check on the time part way through revealed I still had half the movie left to go, at which point I realized I only had a very vague idea of what was going on, by who, or why, and didn’t really care, knowing only that the tedium was set to continue for almost another hour. The second half maybe-kinda-perhaps is a little more coherent, once a kidnap plot finally kicks into action, but this still doesn’t help the characters – even and especially our heroes and heroines – to be likeable or consistent, and the pro-active sisters doing it for themselves plot reeks of a certain other recent animated picture that enjoyed considerably more artistic finesse and commercial success.

Indeed, it’s hard to corroborate what we’re seeing onscreen with the names behind the scenes; perhaps not so much from post-prequels and Crystal Skull-bothering Lucas, but certainly from Rydstrom and co-screenwriter Irene Mecchi (with input from “story consultant” Brenda Chapman), previously of such much more assured work as The Lion King (here apparently using another Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a template) and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, practically about as far removed from Strange Magic’s strange brew as one could get! Maybe the film’s tag line, “everyone deserves to be loved”, might just as well have been “everyone can have an off day”…

The result, then, is a film filled with more tedium than most and, even if the concept of the supposed villain actually turning out to have the emotional character arc is still slightly fresh in this post-Maleficent world (and if you don’t count Lucas’ own past attempts to do the same thing with a certain Sith lord), though just when it feels like things might be about to wrap up with a singing of Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra title track, a plot “twist” means there’s still another half hour to go! When the credits do finally roll (and they do, eventually), you’ll be as pleased as the singing and dancing characters onscreen, but for totally different reasons (imagine the song and dance ending of any DreamWorks film lasting the entire duration and you get the idea). You’ll certainly feel Strange, though not because you’ve experienced any true cinematic Magic: what looks like being George Lucas’ final movie isn’t one you’d think anyone would want to go out on.

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Those less charitable may be tempted to remark that, following the Star Wars prequels his descent onto the dark side is now complete, although I still sense some good in him and he was wise enough to sell his franchises to a company that can now run with them for the better, his name no doubt appearing somewhere on the new films to restore the legacy. On the other hand, maybe Lucas knew what he was doing all along and sold up before Strange Magic was due to make its public debut? After all, what’s a movie’s budget (figures are sketchy, but I’d assume between $40-60 million) when one sells a company for over $4 billion? For their part, the film’s release may have been the one caveat in Disney’s deal, but at least it’s done and out of the way, and now the real fun can start what with bringing Star Wars back and rumors of Guardians Of The Galaxy and Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt taking on Indiana Jones…

Honestly, it’s all probably for the best: Lucas’ films were always better when he didn’t have complete creative control (even Star Wars was a raw, low budget production under producer Gary Kurtz) and it was only later, when money meant he could do as he pleased, that collaboration, and therefore the resulting films, suffered. As such, and if this was the kind of thing we could look forward to from Lucas in the future, we’d have all be wishing for the return of Jar Jar Binks – “come back, all is forgotten”! And even he couldn’t have rescued this Magic from the very, very Strange concoction it is. Best avoided!

Is This Thing Loaded?

Unsurprisingly Disney hasn’t chosen to pack the disc with hours of content, but a couple of EPK offerings at least provide a touring zoom through the production stages. Creating The Magic is actually a pretty nice little featurette in which Lucas and Rydstrom explain how realism was the visual goal, as well as a quick parade of the film’s principal cast taking a pass on their characters by way of studio vocal recording footage and talking-head soundbites. It all whips past pretty swiftly in just over five and a half minutes, with scant production footage in terms of the animation, but emphasis more on the vocal side of things, understandable for a musical.

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Magical Mash Up: Outtakes, Tests And Melodies is another quick-whizz montage of shots, this time being just over four minutes of footage from various stages of the production, from occasional storyboards, character concept drawings, pre-viz and preliminary animation phases, character tests, vocal booth recordings, comic asides and final film renders. As with the film’s theatrical release, Disney clearly doesn’t want to connect the upcoming Star Wars movie(s) to this outing, or anything else for that matter: there is no Force Awakens trail to open the disc and the Sneak Peeks menu option offers up just one spot, for the now months-old Clone Wars: The Lost Missions release.

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Case Study:

As simple as one can get, with a variant of a poster image slapped on to the front of a sleeve shoved in to a cheap, no frills DVD case, without any slipcover or inserts. Which is about right.

Ink And Paint:

Initial reaction was one of surprise when Strange Magic was announced for DVD only without an accompanying Blu-ray release, but having now seen the film once I can’t ever imagine going back to it again! Crap will still be crap, even in HD. That said, the exceptional digital rendering here upscales well enough for it not to be an issue, and the film does look so sharp on this disc for it to be seen as a fine presentation for the one time anyone is ever likely to view it. Some have praised the animation overall, but I do beg to differ: far from the sublime approach given to Lucas’ previous ILM feature Rango, Strange Magic seems very over animated, with a mis-mash of renders that sometimes look deep and real and at other times as lo-res and bit-mapped on as a video game. It’s an inconsistent look that matches the haphazard tone of the movie, and not one that would be made any better by a Blu-ray offering (indeed, this is paradoxically one of the best digital transfers I’ve seen to be fair and, for DVD, it gets top marks). Once again, Disney’s actually made the sensible choice here, considering the ultimate reach for the film.

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Scratch Tracks:

With both visual effects and world-renowned sound design facilities in-house at LucasFilm, you’d expect Strange Magic to have an A-plus mix, but as far as the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on offer here goes, it seems the filmmakers were just as interested in filling the sound field with noise as they were the frame with non-stop visual goings on. It’s a very aggressive mix to be sure, but not in a good or fun way, with everything fighting at the fore, characters singing or shouting all the time, and the music never ending, the worst part of it being that although everything is all pushed up to 11, the music never really sounds full enough to support this approach. Added to this is that the “new” pop arrangements to the classic songs already feel dated, and it’s just not much of an aural delight in sound quality or performance either. A Dolby 2.0 descriptive track is optional, along with English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Final Cut:

It’s never nice to write a scathing review, but one can’t help feeling that an awful lot of money has been spent on something…well…awful, and that so many talented people have wasted their time on something so mis-judged when many other, much more worthy projects languish in development heck. Lucas, again using his self-funded independent clout after producing the visually vibrant, often exciting but ultimately undernourished Red Tails, says he made this just for the fun of it, but if so then he’s the only one having it! While a couple of the songs just about come off okay enough, these do not a memorable, essential or even enjoyable animated feature make.

Adults may have some fun marking out the different songs – or rather the choruses – being used (or is that murdered?), while kids might just find their short attention spans serviced half-satisfactorily, even if the song arrangements are not Taylor Swift-sophisticated or even Frozen-cool enough to capture their imaginations and no-one actually knows what’s going on at any given time! This brand of Magic certainly is of a Strange kind indeed, and not in a good way: even for the super-curious the film is definitely a wait and see it on TV for free affair…although you’d still be better off watching Mars Needs Moms on the other channel…!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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OVERALL DVD


 

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