Ever since its early days, George Lucas’ effects company Industrial Light & Magic, has dabbled in the art of animation. Though not on the level of what Walt Disney was doing, the Marin County effects company would put in little touches, like the ghostly hand reaching through the TV set in Poltergeist, to animating the light and lightning strikes in films like Back to the Future.
Though with the addition of computer-generated imagery to their repertoire, the group soon found themselves adding character animation to their list of offerings. Over the last 30 years, the company has been a pioneer in animation of computer-generated characters (even in a small division that was spun-off…called PIXAR), but it did make some wonder: with all this technology at their disposal, why hadn’t ILM made a fully computer-generated feature film?
In 1999, word was that the company had the chance to do an all-CG Frankenstein and Wolfman feature with Universal Studios. Though it was never stated why, the project was shelved, in favor of making the film, Van Helsing. If you look on Youtube, video of the 13-seconds of test animation ILM did on the Frankenstein Montster can be seen. Here’s a still:
It wouldn’t be until almost 12 years later, that the studio would finally get its chance to do a fully computer-generated feature: the Gore Verbinski-directed, Rango. The overloaded film about acting, identity, wealth, desperados, and much more, showcased some stellar rendering and character texturing on the studio’s part. It also cleaned up during awards season, winning Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and The Annie Awards. Though after those wins, the future of the company’s animation division went silent…until, 3 months ago.
That was when it was announced that a new animated feature titled Strange Magic, would be released in January, leading some to scratch their heads as to why a company like Disney, would choose to just drop-kick an animated feature like this.
The film takes place in a realm of Fairies, and a Dark Kingdom, with both sides forbidden to trespass into the other’s realms.
In the fairy realm, dwell two sisters: the done-with-love Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), and her younger, romantically-minded sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). However, a number of romantic entanglements end up causing a life-wrecking love potion to get the ball rolling, causing Dawn to be taken by the Dark Kingdom’s Bog King (Alan Cumming). As well, an elf by the name of Sunny (Elijah Kelley), is tasked with retrieving the absconded love potion, after it is taken by a mischievous, chittering white imp. It also happens, that Sunny also harbors feelings for Dawn as well.
When it comes to Marianne and Dawn, some will probably draw a few parallels to two recently-popular “Princess sisters.” Though unlike Elsa, Marianne has chosen to let out her inner ‘warrior princess,’ in the aftermath of her happily-never-after. She’s become the ‘darker’ of the two sisters, carrying a sword, and dressing less regally than her father would like. The film also seems rather vague regarding their relationship as sisters. Just a few little scenes here-and-there, and we get to fill in the blanks regarding their familial closeness. Even the girl’s father (voiced by Alfred Molina) is just…there.
At times, it is a little hard to figure out the logic in parts of the films. For example, even though the fairies have wings, there are a few times where it seems they would use them…but don’t? As well, Marianne practices fencing with some smaller creatures that are in her company, though using THEM for targets. It’s not that she slices them to pieces, but each blow sounds like she’s hitting them hard. If they were maybe hard-bodied bugs I could understand that, but we see her hitting several on the head with her sword(!).
Time in the film, is also a strange thing. Aside from the main story of the film, I felt like the beginning portions we were seeing was taking place over a period of weeks, but it could be just a few days?
The designs of the fairies have seemed very non-interesting from the previews and still images, almost seeming a little close to the styles from the 2006 film, Arthur and the Invisibles, with the long ears, and exaggerated features. Though I think once you see them in motion after awhile, like watching The Hobbit in 48 FPS display, the brain begins to accept what you are seeing.
Pretty quickly, it becomes evident that the film is meant to be a musical. These are not original compositions, but adaptations of such songs as I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. The way the songs are interspersed, one might be put in mind of Moulin Rouge, which also took musical pieces, and tweaked them to fit their film’s scenarios. Though unlike that film, Strange Magic contains no original musical singles.
The Bog King and his legion of dark realm forest creatures take advantage of the studio’s texturing techniques. Though to be fair, the creatures in this dark realm look like concept art from the film The Spiderwick Chronicles. One area of question I had, was that given he’s more insect than fairy, why then did they give him such normal blue eyes? I can’t help but feel this was a decision to make him a little more ’emotive’ for some scenes.
There’s not a whole lot regarding the animation that really made me take notice. If anything, the sword-fighting moves reminded me a little of the staccato-like movements used in the Clone Wars lightsaber fights.
The bright spot in the film, is the rendering of the plant-life and natural surroundings. By the looks of a lot of this film, there’s bound to be at least several dozen pages of conceptual art and design work that would be suitable for a coffee-table book…though as of this review, there’s no such book-listing.
Gary Rydstrom helms the sophomore effort from ILM, based on a story by George Lucas. The advertising using this name in the last month has caused many to shy away from the film, but one has to know, it’s not like he had full control of the film. In fact, the screenplay was written by David Berenbaum, and Irene Mecchi. Mecchi has written on several Disney animated features, while Berenbaum is known for writing the 2003 film, Elf. Rydstrom also has a co-screenwriting credit.
Gary’s career has been intertwined between both Lucasfilm and PIXAR. After doing sound mixing for a number of major films, Gary was given the chance to direct at PIXAR. He directed the short Lifted, and Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation. He was also attached to direct Newt, the first PIXAR film to be cancelled during production. One has to wonder if Strange Magic was offered to him in the aftermath of the cancellation of Newt.
In the end, Strange Magic feels like a strange concoction of Moulin Rouge, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as that Shakespearean dash of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that has been referenced in several interviews.
The marketing push on this film reduced it to seeming childish and somewhat pervasive to the final product. Seeing the film, I was surprised at no pop-cultural references, or the occasional mild rude humor that is prevalent in almost every PG-rated family film these days.
Sadly, there’s not a whole lot here to make me want to come back for more. The characters never really feel like they reach a point of sticking distinctly in our heads, and the song renditions will probably not be embraced by the populous…yet, it’s got some good effort put into it. In conclusion, it’s ‘passable’ entertainment.
Then again, being a weird and strange individual for much of my life, it probably makes a little sense that I wouldn’t completely shun an animated film called Strange Magic.