Dave's Rating:


Don't Bring Me Down

There are exactly two moments of genuine beauty in Strange Magic, and one of them is contained in the ELO song that supplies the film with its title. As the pro-love, female fairy Marianne (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) from the Fairy Kingdom and the anti-love, nominally evil “Bog King” (Alan Cumming) of the Dark Forest sing it in bland duet, it happens: that whirlwind of strings swooping up and down in the middle of the song. It’s a sound that ELO pretty much owned 40 years ago, and it doesn’t matter if you’re old enough to remember when it was popular on radios, or if you’re six and hearing it for the first time, it’s a specific identifying mark that attaches itself to your brain's pleasure points, inspiring affection for the entire song, and, by extension, whatever new cultural product that happens to be hosting it.

The second moment comes near the end when, if my Moulin Rouge-blasted memory serves me correctly, the characters are jamming to a Kidz Bop-style cover of “Wild Thing.” Suddenly, the action abandons all the ugly character design, stale plotting and cheap-looking digital cartooning, and a kaleidoscope effect takes over for about 15 trance-inducing seconds. Then it’s done, shirking its responsibility to inspire a fresh bloom of psychedelic subculture among elementary-school-aged children. While it lasts, though, it’s enough to make anyone swoon.

These are tricks, of course. They will make audiences unfortunate enough to stumble into this George Lucas-produced, animated atrocity wonder if more good stuff is coming before they stumble back out. It is not.

The story goes that the Bog King has dispatched his adorable goblins to protect the perimeter of the Dark Forest. That’s where primroses grow and the fairies of Fairy Kingdom need those primroses to make love potion. Bog has also kidnapped the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth, itching to have a character as cool as the poisonouse tree frog she voiced in last year’s Rio 2). Why has he done this? It doesn't matter. This is a creature whose attempt to explain his hateful philosophical stance becomes muddled in confusion over what role the concept of love plays in the great cosmic struggle between order and chaos. Not that anything made sense before he started talking, either, but it just gets worse.

Meanwhile, Marianne has rejected the lunkheaded and vain prince Roland (Sam Palladio) and must save her sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) from her own love-potion-inspired crush on Bog. As all of this plays out, they sing. And sing and sing. Not as much as in, say, Into The Woods, but almost. Pop songs old and new are trotted out, arranged for maximum child-appeasement, then haphazardly thrown together for the sake of moving along action. In odd moments they’re also mashed up in ways that seemed novel in 2002 but are, today, just another example of why Glee suffers its current ratings slump. At one point, characters actually sing-fight and neither opponent wins. At least when they're singing they're not talking. That's something.

Love wins out in the end, as it does in children’s films, but not before it strips away all the pleasure from that idea, your 100-minute investment now a cold, confused lump of distress. Alternative plan: download some old ELO songs, stare through a toy kaleidoscope for an hour and a half. It’ll be way more magical.


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