Review: ‘Strange Magic’ is a toxic and unpleasant formula for kids

Every now and then, I find myself suddenly and unexpectedly angry at George Lucas, but not for reasons that have anything to do with “Star Wars.”

There has been a refrain we've heard from him over and over during the past couple of decades, where he talks about returning to his roots and making experimental films that could never exist inside the studio system, movies that aren't created to be commercial product, but that come from a very personal place. And over and over, those comments lead nowhere and nothing happens.

I'd love to see him do it, though. I have a huge fondness for “THX-1138,” Lucas's first feature film, which evolved out of a student film he made. I take Lucas at his word that commercial filmmaking was never meant to be the complete detour it became after “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars” both blew up into mega-hits, and for years, I believed his comments about returning to a more experimental style of storytelling. Whatever you end up feeling about the prequels, there is a feeling that Lucas is somewhat shackled by expectation, that he is bristling to simply play with the toys instead of having to satisfy the desires of fans who had been waiting decades for those films.

Unfortunately, the only two films that aren't related to “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” that can give us any glimpse into what Lucas does when he is free to do anything are not terribly different than the anonymous glop that fills the release schedule every year, which leads me to believe at this point that we'll never see the more experimental version of Lucas, and that he's been telling himself that for so long that he may not even realize he's done.

“Strange Magic” is a holdover, something that started when Lucasfilm Ltd. was still a stand-alone company, and Disney is burning the movie off as a Touchstone release, indicating that they're not terribly interested in tying this, even accidentally, to the larger tradition of Disney animation. Having seen the film, I get the choice. I don't think “Strange Magic” is terrible movie, but it is a very weird one in many ways, and perhaps the most bizarre thing about it is realizing that we finally have a fairy tale written expressly for the age of date rape drugs.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I can hear you saying. “That's ridiculous. There's no way George Lucas and Disney just made a movie about date rape drugs. You're stretching, and that's preposterous.” I don't think so, though. Maybe that's not a conscious thought that Lucas ever had, and I doubt screenwriters David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, and Gary Rydstrom ever decided to do something overt, but I am also a believer that the artist is not always the best source when discussing what a piece of art is actually about. And while Rydstrom is the director here, Lucas has made it very clear that this is something he considers “his.”

On its surface, this is a switch-up on the basic “Beauty and the Beast” formula, in which the lesson is taught that love is not about exteriors, but should be about the way you react to a person as a whole. Fine. Good lesson to share, especially in our image-obsessed culture. But the way the film gets there is what ends up being so very odd, which starts with the music. This is built, musically, much the same way “Moulin Rouge” was, using existing songs to give voice to pretty much every scene in the film. There is dialogue in “Strange Magic,” but the majority of what you're going to hear are very sugary, poppy arrangements of songs ranging from “Can't Help Falling In Love,” “I'll Never Fall In Love Again,” “Tell Him,” “People Are Strange,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and the beautiful Nilsson song, “Without You.” One of the songs featured is Bob Marley's “Three Little Birds,” and at the end of the film, my youngest son asked me if I have that song on any of my computers. If the point of using these old songs is to introduce them to a new generation, then mission accomplished. But it's such a hodgepodge of tone that it never all feels like it's coming from the same voice, and when you've got Lady Gaga wedged up against Heart and Whitney Huston and David Bowie, it's hard to make it all work together. And, yes, the ELO song is indeed used, but it's pretty much just thrown away.

The whole film hinges on the animosity between all the characters from Fairy Land and all the characters from the scary Dark Forest. They look about like you'd expect, with a strong Brian Froud influence running through everything. It's like Lucas decided sometime in the early '80s that all fantasy should look a certain way, based on the popular aesthetic at that time, and nothing has changed since then. Froud actually worked on “Labyrinth,” but here, it's more a case of influence than anything. All of the characters and the world itself share the same aesthetic, somewhere between van art from the '70s and the painted covers of those Dutch “Gnomes” books. One of the things I find interesting as ILM works in feature length animation on films like this and “Rango” is that they don't really look like anyone else's animated movies. I like that they are willing to take some stylistic chances, but I don't think this one works visually anywhere near as well as “Rango” did.

The film opens on the wedding day of Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) and Roland (Sam Palladio). She's the Fairy Princess, and Roland is a cad who only wants her for her army. When she catches him cheating on their wedding day (yes, this is all still the set-up for a kids film), she announces that she will never love again.

Meanwhile, we learn that The Bog King (Alan Cumming), who rules over the Dark Forest, has forbidden anyone to make the love potion that evidently uses the petals of the primroses that grow between the two kingdoms. That's okay, though, since the only person who can make the love potion is the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristen Chenoweth), who is imprisoned in the Bog King's dungeon.

When Roland, still determined to get his army, decides to make a love potion so Marianne will still love him, he enlists the help of Sonny (Elijah Kelley), an elf who is in love with Marianne's little sister Princess Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull). Sonny wants to use the love potion on Dawn, who he is convinced will never notice him. And with all of those idea in play, the film kicks off what is meant to be a charming and romantic romp in which we learn why the Bog King is so mean, we learn that Marianne needs the right person to make her believe in love again, and we learn that the only thing more powerful than a love potion is real love.

The problem I'm having is that there is a cultural conversation that is just beginning right now, thanks in no small part to recent headlines about Bill Cosby. I'm sure we all have our own take on the Cosby scandal, but I'm particularly troubled by the way footage is starting to show up of not only an old stand-up routine but repeated mentions over the years by Cosby about how much everyone he knew wanted to find the real Spanish Fly. Spanish Fly, of course, is a long-fabled plant that you can put in a woman's food that will make her so crazy that she will have sex with whoever she is with. Gross idea, certainly, but there's something even more skin-crawling about watching Cosby sit with Larry King, the two of them chortling about how much they all wished they had some Spanish Fly. You would think Cosby would learn to not even joke about such a thing, but then he turns around and at a recent concert actually made a joke to a woman in the audience about spiking her drink. Does he actually think all of this is funny or okay to kid about? He's accused of decades of systematic rape, and he's literally joking about it. It made me realize that the Spanish Fly thing never registers to him because he grew up with that as an accepted cultural norm. That was just a thing guys talked about, and no one ever questioned the underlying pathology of such an urban legend. The only appeal there seems to be about such a thing is the removal of the possibility of a “no” from the conversation, and that's not funny or appealing at all.

Love potions, of course, have been part of storytelling for centuries, and they're often used in silly or funny ways. I'm not saying that's impossible. I am saying, though, that when you make a kids film where the main conversation is whether or not a woman should have agency in choosing who she sleeps with, you're in very weird territory, raising questions that kids, frankly, are not even remotely ready to grapple with. Once it becomes clear why the Bog King hates love potions (he tried to make someone marry him with one and it failed), it becomes even harder to root for him. The film ultimately lands on the idea that real love cuts through everything else and is undeniable, and that's a perfectly fine idea. But until that point, this film is so focused on the effects of the potions, and there are so many parallels to toxic real-world behavior, that I found myself unable to enjoy even the lightest moments.

The truth is, even without the icky subtext, “Strange Magic” really doesn't work. Disney's use of the Touchstone logo is one of the clearest cases of damning your product silently that I've ever seen. You think if Lucas had handed them a great movie, they wouldn't have proudly released it as “Walt Disney Feature Animation”? Disney's been desperate to be in the George Lucas business for years, and it's their dumb luck that the film he gave them to release is more “Radioland Murders” than “Star Wars.”

“Strange Magic” is in theaters tomorrow. “Paddington” is still playing, though, so you have options, parents. Explore them.