I ended up seeing the film “Strange Magic” yesterday because my best friend wanted to see it. It’s a CG animated film about fairies and other similarly small mythical creatures who live next door to the Dark Forest, full of small, evil mythical creatures. I went in totally blind, I hadn’t even heard of the flick and according to a review on the IMDB page, the trailer wouldn’t have given me the correct impression of the film. It has some story elements that I want to talk about, but I’m going to talk a bit about the other aspects of the film first. That way if anyone who wants to see it and hasn’t yet can be spared spoilers while getting a bit of info on the film.
First off, it is a musical from start to finish. After our brief and somewhat vague opening narration, the first song begins. Although it is presented more as a character simply singing rather than a musical number. The musical numbers are predominantly older pop songs, with at least two representatives from the 60s. I’m not actually sure if any of the songs are original or not. They are all catchy, well sung and largely inoffensive. The film is rated PG solely for action and scary images.
The cast is solid, although I recognized only one name, Alan Cumming, who was in X2. I didn’t know he could sing, but he has some pretty solid chops. The rest are all similarly good. The only weird bit of casting is Roland’s voice, Sam Palladio. He’s not bad, but there is something really weird in the choice of casting a British actor to play a character with a Southern accent. Which the choice to give him that accent still escapes me, the only reason I can think of is that they wanted to play on the stereotypical idea that Southern white men are racist (and dumb). Because no one else in the kingdom has that accent in the slightest. Another odd thing is that this is (at least) the second role in which Elijah Kelley (Sunny) gets together with a blonde girl of a different race, who has a racist parent who has an over the top emotional reaction to discovering their romance.
The animation is absolutely gorgeous, although they decided to skimp on hair animation and texturing on the fairy wings. They have a nice variety of creatures and settings. The world is extremely well realized and the atmospheres of the fairy kingdom and the dark forest are nice and distinct. AS far as CGI goes it gets an A+.
Now for the story, those fearing spoilers should leave now.
The story is incredibly predictable. You’ve seen it before in part or all in Sabrina, Enchanted, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, and Legally Blonde.
Our female lead, Marianne is madly in love with the dashing knight Roland. We open on their wedding day, mere hours before their vows. She discovers Roland is cheating while trying to deliver a “Buttoneer” (a sort of male corsage worn in the buttonhole, a fairy tradition I guess?). She calls off the wedding and a strong bond between her and her (seemingly levelheaded) younger sister, Dawn is eluded to. She enters a manhating phase and learns to wield a sword.
All the while the king of the neighboring dark forest, (the) Bog King is continuously ordering his minions to cut down all the primroses growing on the forest border, to prevent them from being used to make love potions. He’s also staving off efforts by his mother to get him hitched.
Dawn turns out to be such a hopeless flirt she can’t concentrate on one guy, much to the chagrin of her friendzoned elf, (with a Troll doll hairdo) Sunny. They are attacked by a lizard and saved by Marianne. They go to the spring fairy ball, where Roland is waiting (puzzlingly, with the King’s full endorsement) to try and win Marianne back. She doesn’t buy it and shoves him out of the dance hall. There he meets the forlorn Sunny, who he manipulates into acquiring a love potion. Sunny acquires a primrose petal and begins his long journey into the dark forest to the Bog King’s castle, where the Sugar Plum Fairy (the only one who can make these) is locked up. He’s helped along by an imp (a cutesified opossum, basically), who will cause issues later. He acquires the potion in exchange for freeing the fairy. The fairy gets recaptured and Sunny makes his way back in time for the elf spring ball. Marianne attends after her fat father begs for help looking after her sister Dawn. Sunny prepares to use the “potion”, just as the Bog King arrives very angry with his trespassing. Despite Marianne’s efforts, the Bog King kidnaps Dawn just after the potion has been administered and demands the potion (just stolen by the imp from earlier) be delivered to his castle by moondown. Marianne flies after him, Sunny is sent after the imp, and Roland leads an army into the forest.
The Bog King arrives back at the castle and releases Dawn from her bag, making him the first person she sees. The potion takes effect and she begins tormenting them with love songs and makes a buttoneer for the Bog King. The imp is busily spreading the potion around at random, causing a lizard to fall in love with Sunny (and Pare his companion), they use the lizard to capture him and get the potion. They then catch up with Roland. Marianne arrives at the castle, battles with the Bog King until they come to an impasse, and then has it revealed to her that Dawn is under the effect of the potion. The Bog King demands a cure from the Sugar Plum Fairy. Marianne and the Bog King bond over hating on romantic stuff. Except the buttoneer Dawn made, the Bog King is oddly attached that. It turns out the only cure for the love potion is real love. It’s revealed the Bog King hates the potions because he used one on a woman and it didn’t work. The romance between Marianne and the Bog King officially begins with a moonlit flight through the not-so-dark forest. Roland arrives, the romance is jeopardized, Sunny sneaks into the dungeon again to free everyone (those under the love potion’s effects had been rounded up to be cured). Roland sends his henchmen to destroy the castle on his signal and goes to meet the Bog King. He ends up battling both Marianne and the Bog King, before signaling to his men. The castle begins collapsing, the Bog King seemingly sacrifices himself to save the sisters. He survives (as does everyone). Roland pops back up and uses the potion on Marianne, it doesn’t work because she loves the Bog King. Dawn is healed of the potion’s effects when she hugs Sunny and immediately announces she loves him. Her father faints. Roland gets potioned and shoved off a cliff. Dawn encourages Marianne to admit her feelings (because she’s suddenly sagely again like at the beginning of the movie). Marianne and the Bog King sing “Wild Thing” to admit they love each other. Mid-credit role we see Roland making out with an ugly fly creature seen earlier in the film. The end.
The TL;DR version is “Pretty girl trades in useless pretty boy for the
less conventionally attractive ugly, but much higher status guy after finding herself.”
There are some pretty major storytelling issues here, mostly revolving around presenting Marianne as a healthy character during her anti-love manhating phase (that lasts most of the movie). Dawn goes from seemingly levelheaded in the first few minutes of the movie to a girl with zero self-control when it comes to boys. The only reason she doesn’t have a long list of exes is because she can’t focus on one guy for more then fifteen-twenty minutes. No one can keep up with who she is crushing on. The father is a poor parent who is bizarrely attached to the idea of Marianne marrying Roland, despite the fact he cheated on her and he would realistically be extremely angry about that. Roland is practically a caricature of scummy, racist, cheating man with a tiny ego that one finds in too much media. All this to make I’ll-marry-the-first-guy-I-don’t-want-to-punch Marianne seem like a good role model. There is also the puzzling dearth of other men vying for crown princess Marianne’s hand. Another thing, it’s not really a story issue, but it does strike me as odd that the Bog King gets so attached to the buttoneer Dawn made for him, and that Marianne returns it to him after they’ve fallen in love. Finally, at the end, there is the fact that Roland would have no way of knowing how the Bog King’s castle was constructed, so there was no way he could have come up with his plan to destroy it. Since his plan revolved around using the cages in the dungeon as wrecking balls against the main strut that held up the castle.
The story was obviously attempting to mimic Frozen with sisters saving each other and the pretty boy being the bad guy, it was also trying to subvert the princess marries prince charming idea by pairing Marianne off with the Bog King. Instead all they did was play into a typical Game narrative of a girl being attracted by status and aloofness. That subversion they were attempting has been done better in other films, and while I don’t like Frozen all that much, it is the superior movie here. I also spotted where the movie was going to go as soon as Roland’s scumminess was revealed, and I don’t generally predict where plots are going to go.
Is it a fun movie? Certainly. The music is good and the jokes are on point. There are worse movies you could show your kids. Is it a great movie? No. It is rife with issues, particularly with the characters and message. While it comes out pro-love at the end, most of the running time is spent being very, very anti-love and pro-you-go-grrrl. Also it spends a lot of time endorsing the idea of not rushing in love, only to portray Marianne and the Bog King’s love as strong enough to resist a love potion. The idea that people are stronger together than alone is thrown out there, but by a character who is implied to be racist and obviously lacks good character judgement. Therefore undermining that idea. What the movie does best is illustrate that character is more important than appearance, but that’s hardly an unusual message.
It’s a good rental movie and certainly fine for kids. You may want to discuss with older kids why Marianne’s distrust and even hatred of an entire group because of the actions of one person is unhealthy, but that is of course up to you as a parent and depends on your kids. The soundtrack is worth a listen if you like pop music. I doubt I’ll see it again, but I’m quite critical of movies.