The animated family fantasy Strange Magic is short on strange, and on magic. A lumpy mix of disparate inspirations haphazardly assembled, the story is one of feuding kingdoms, the good fairy people living in the fields, and the bad bog creatures living in a swamp. Just once wouldn’t it be nice if the twinkly fairies were up to no good and the ugly slimy swamp people were our heroes? (I guess that’s Shrek, but you get my point.) There’s some eventual scrambling of the simple good and evil categories, with don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover moralizing, but it gets off to a routine start and stays there. It hastily sketches in a half-baked world in which the Good and the Bad fight over a love potion, and fills it with the most predictable plot points you could think up.
The screenplay by director Gary Rydstrom (a Pixar alum responsible for the charming alien-abduction short Lifted) and co-writers Irene Mecchi and David Berenbaum, from an idea by George Lucas, follows the standard animated family film formula. There are princesses, unrequited love, and fancy parties. There are kind but misguided parental figures, silly sidekicks, and magical quests involving True Love. There’s anachronistic slangy dialogue and modern music. In fact, it’s a jukebox musical that’s nonstop familiar songs (from Elvis and ELO to Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson) assembled in an incongruous mix as if someone listened to an oldies station and wrote down the first six songs that played, then scanned the dial to a more current station to grab three more. To top it all off, there’s a busy battle climax, including the now-standard giant crash that appears to kill a main character until the supposedly dead reappears as the crowd’s mourning turns to astonished relief.
That’s familiar stuff, but at least it looks good. The movie was animated by Industrial Light and Magic, whose last all-CGI feature brought the wonderful Rango’s motley wildlife to the screen. The characters here are operating on a similar ugliness to cuteness ratio, their scales and fur impressively rendered. The main plot – involving an evil Bog King (Alan Cumming) who has outlawed love potions, and the innocent fairies (Evan Rachel Wood and Meredith Anne Bull) who get caught in his wrath when one of their citizens (Elijah Kelley) steals a vial – is snoozeville. But the design fills in whimsical details along the edges, like gossiping toadstools, insecure froggy goblins, and an impish rodent thing who just wants to sprinkle the whole forest with the love potion.
Animation buffs might enjoy buying the Blu-ray off a bargain rack to study the lovely details, but even then the film would be better enjoyed playing in the background with the sound down. It’s so bare bones in its telling, with dialogue that may as well be “insert something about XYZ here,” tonal switches that feel like placeholders for more fluid shifts, and songs penciled in like temp tracks a music supervisor should have improved later. Its formula is broad chalk outlines to be fleshed in later, except no one did. Its storytelling is so loose and rough, it feels like we should be watching storyboards and invited to shout our suggestions for improvements.
I’d start with changing the depressingly heteronormative approach, which takes Wood’s cool, self-sufficient warrior princess who is completely happy swearing off romance and, by the end, says she just needs to meet the right man. How awesome would a fairy princess deciding she’s happier on her own be? And how sad, in a movie that features a fairy prince making out with a fly, that there isn’t enough imagination to think that’s a possibility.