MOVIE REVIEW: Strange Magic

STRANGE MUSIC is music to my heart! Think an animated "Moulin Rouge!" that embraces the George Lucas ideals of dark & light, finding beauty and love in the darkest places, experiencing incredible new worlds, and all set in another kind of galaxy far, far away, this one comprised of The Fairy Kingdom and The Dark Forest. Yes. George Lucas. The man behind the mythical worlds of The Fairy Kingdom and The Dark Forest (also the man behind The Empire and The Force) has a soft side, an animated side, a side of him that loves love stories and musicals. And with that in mind, and Lucas' vision at its core, that's exactly what director Gary Rydstrom brings to life with STRANGE MAGIC.

Marianne is a fairy princess sworn off love while her sister Dawn is as giggly as a teenager with every male creature she meets. Roland is a less than charming Prince who only has eyes for the throne of The Fairy Kingdom and determines to take it no matter who or what he uses to get there. Sunny is an easy-going happy little gnome deeply in love with his best friend Dawn. And then there's The Dark Forest. Presided over by the Bog King, love is a word never to be uttered and its inhabitants live in fear of his wrath. Imprisoned by the Bog King is Sugar Plum Fairy who has a penchant for making love potions, while joining in the fun within both kingdoms is a bevy of adorable little pixies, fairies, sprites, birds, bugs, woodland creatures and one mischievous little Imp. Always separate worlds merely divided by a path of primrose, what happens when love and deceit rear their ugly heads and the worlds collide.

While infused with Shakespearean notes harkening to "A Midsummer Night's Dream", noteworthy is that the core ethos, messaging and story design of STRANGE MAGIC, is easily analogized and paralleled to the constructs of the "Star Wars" franchise; Luke Skywalker walking into the cantina with Obi Wan, or saw the strength in Marianne that mirrors that of Princess Leia, or the dark side of Darth Vader as here seen in the Bog King. There is no doubt that the origins of STRANGE MAGIC lie within George Lucas.

Rydstrom, seven time Academy Award winner for Best Sound and/or Best Sound Effects Editing who, while having previously directed the English dub of "The Secret of Arrietty", had yet to actually direct a film, now marks STRANGE MAGIC as not only his first feature direction, but first animated feature direction, and a musical at that, presenting lots of new experiences and challenges on a myriad of fronts, starting with the music.

Music is key and calling on songs spanning the past 60 years, Marius De Vries, the same music supervisor Baz Luhrmann looked to for "Moulin Rouge!", STRANGE MAGIC director Gary Rydstrom now turns to and as a result, achieves the same joyous musical experience. Written by David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi and Rydstrom from a story by George Lucas, story and animation bloom from the music and the songs. One of the structural musical high points of the film is not only the cohesiveness with the song selections and their appropriateness for emotion and character which is then mirrored by the visual animation and tonal bandwidth, but the seamless haunting undercurrent of a song leading up to a full on song. A careful collaboration between De Vries and director Rydstrom, for Rydstrom, he "especially loved how to figure out how to get in and out of songs and structure it so they don't slam in and surprise you in a way that sometimes you can do in musicals. '"Whoa! We're singing!!' That was a fun thing to try to figure out how to weave the singing of the dialogue from head to tail."

Technically, the animation is glorious, particularly the use of color. A beautiful blend of photorealism with both forests which just leap off the page almost with a three-dimensional element to them, added to that are elements of whimsy and fantasy through the creatures themselves and how they're created. Two very distinct looks, yet they marry beautifully; much like the fairy forest and the dark forest and embracing that typical George Lucas, black & white, good & evil. According to Rydstrom, "[The animation] has this live action DNA to it. The richness and the detail and the grittiness of it comes from a live action sensibility and then we do animation within it which is really nice to do. If you think that the theme of the movie is to find beauty in unexpected places, in things that might seem strange or ugly on the outside, so you need that level of detail and grittiness and organic natural feel to it. Th world is full of great little details but so are the characters. The characters fit their worlds and they're full of great little details in their clothing and their faces and the hair. They are wonderfully detailed."

And when it comes to cinematography and lighting for creating mood and texture, as well as providing its own layers of storytelling, the work is meticulously designed and executed, in many cases harkening back to the styling of Old Hollywood and the days of film noir, citing references of lighting Barbara Stanwyck and Boris Karloff.

A key component to the design of STRANGE MAGIC is movement. It's rare that we see Marianne ever stop moving, or, other than when sitting on his throne, the Bog King. Wings are always moving, wings are always fluttering. The little feet are even fluttering in the air. For Rydstrom, designing that movement was "a big challenge. The animators did a lot of studies of how butterflies and other creatures flew. To look at them in reality, they're very stiff, the wings are very stiff. We ended up loosening our fairy wings to have the softer look to it. But we wanted it to be believable, we wanted you to believe that they were flying. Part of the coolness of a character like Marianne is that she can fly, and that's amazing! The very first shot of her in the movie is the long shot of her flying through her world. The wings became part of the animation - when does she flap them, when does she get nervous and flap them quicker, when does she slow down without losing altitude. There's a lot of times where she kind of slows down her wing flaps to think about something and you'll see her lose altitude a little bit and she has to get a little more airborne. [laughing] I thought it was like an animator having a dog tail to animate to. It's another aspect to the personality to get across and how she is using her wings to tell us what she's thinking. Plus, it's just damn beautiful! And the lighting of it, you can backlight them, you can get a little bit of light through the wings. I start to see them like Tiffany windows." The result is a breathtaking opalescence translucence which Rydstrom finds important with STRANGE MAGIC "to have those breaths of classically breathtaking shots on the Fairy Kingdom side and beauty in the way that we're used to seeing it because the movie really is about them seeing beauty in everything in the Dark Forest and the Bog King himself which is not classically beautiful, and then make that look beautiful."

While outwardly surprising, the voice casting and its diversity hits all the right notes both in musicality and character personality. Key is that all the singing is done by the actors cast. Notable are the performances by Alan Cumming as The Bog King, Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne and who, according to Rydstrom "can sing soft ballads all the way through hard rock", Alfred Molina as The Fairy King, Maya Rudolph as Bog King's mother Griselda and Kristin Chenoweth as Sugar Plum Fairy who is not only operatic in her vocal range and an amazing singer overall, but for Rydstrom, "she's really funny and that character, she kind of tore into it in terms of the craziness and fun."

Although not for everyone, STRANGE MAGIC is, again, very much akin to an animated "Moulin Rouge!" with its construct. It's fun. It's whimsical. It screams George Lucas with the subtext, symbolism and messaging. It's a joyous movie-going experience. Sometimes you just need flights of fancy to remind us of the hidden joy and beauty of the world of wonder.

Directed by Gary Rydstrom

Written by David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi and Rydstrom from a story by George Lucas

Voice Cast: Allan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Sam Palladio, Elijah Kelley, Alfred Molina, Peter Stormare


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