So I’m gliding along pretty happily to the kooky vibe Strange Magic is putting out. Not without some hiccups – this is a movie where one of the leads presages a song by shouting “Booties, prepare to be shaken!” (No, Strange Magic, my booty will remain firmly unshaken, thank you very much for the suggestion.)
But we’re nearing the climax, and I’ve managed to make it through a shaky opening that was more of an aborted preface than anything else (seriously the two princess sisters completely switch attitudes and dispositions within five minutes of the film starting). I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that the plot about love potions will not make any darn sense. And I’ve even stopped caring that half the characters (just about every character with humanoid features) have the weirdest, most detailed, uncanny Steven Tyler mouths, with individual pearly white teeth that reach a level of verisimilitude that animated films maybe don’t need to reach.
And then one of the film’s weaker characters, a total tool with a blonde-Elvis vibe who believes he’s entitled to the hottest girl around based on his supreme attractiveness, shouts at the film’s two romantic leads, calling one of them a beauty and one of them a beast.
DARNIT! GOSH-ALL-LOVIN-DARNIT! Just as I am starting to get over how much Strange Magic had looked like a callous Epic rip-off during its extraordinarily brief marketing phase (what an odd movie to want to steal from, by the by; pretty sure I’m the only person over twelve who will go to bat hard for Epic, which is extremely Miyazaki-like, even if Pitbull does voice a frog in it) and just as I am starting to dig the secret surprise that this movie uses pop music (some of it with a bit of subtle criticism, which we’ll get to) to tell a truly off-kilter love story I don’t quite think I’ve ever seen before, Strange Magic goes out of its way to remind me that even though it’s not a rip-off of the good movie I thought it was a rip-off of, it’s a rip-off of an even better movie.
As charming as Strange Magic gets – and it gets pretty charming – it is no Beauty and the Beast. This Roland fellow, with his dashing good looks and his puffed out chest, is no Gaston and, as cuddly as Bog is becoming and as feminist-positive as Marianne has been, these two lovebirds are no Beast and Belle. And you know what? The comparison might have blissfully not occurred to me had the movie not brought it up in-text. Roland’s line is a thunderously poor idea, underlining a subtle and surprising plotline in such a way that it makes it seem not so much INSPIRED by threads in past films and an overall need to see different character types fall in love on screen, as straight-up PURLOINED from a movie that already hit just about every note this uneven musical hits. A movie that hit them better. And with original Menken/Ashman compositions!
Which is too bad, because I was really falling under Strange Magic’s strange spell for a while there. I’d struggled mightily to reach that plateau, but by the time every major character was in the Dark Forest (it’s fo’ real name) traipsing around with unrequited crushes both real and ensorcelled, the movie was truly cooking with some heat. (No Canned Heat though; Deep Purple, The Doors, and The Troggs make it on the soundtrack, stopping just short of Canned Heat.) It had become clear that Kristen Chenoweth and Alan Cumming were in fine scene-stealing form. The song choice, which seemed cutesy and obvious in the opening act, had become downright interesting, with the filmmakers digging up some old diamonds in the rough and putting an interesting shine on them. Best of all, an unexpected romance was forming, and as it unfolded, my surprise that this otherwise unremarkable little trifle was going there had turned to delight.
Marianne, you see, is a punk princess – she found out ON HER WEDDING DAY (damn…) that Roland, her ambitious cad of a fiancée, had been stepping out on her, and she immediately went from humming “Can’t Help Falling In Love” to sobbing “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” on her rosebud bed. But as Marianne’s voice grew stronger during that ditty, so too did her resolve. And with that resolve came… rebellious eyeliner! Before our eyes, Marianne transforms from a Manic Pixie Dream Pixie (complete with pixie cut, because long hair’s expensive to animate) into a riot grrrrl Joan Jett with translucent wings. (I think it’s awesome that a movie like this makes it apparent to girls [and boys] that a woman can be a badass with a sword and a bit of an attitude, and be complete without a man, but I think it’s sad that this suggestion usually comes with the caveat that a person would only resort to such things if they had their heart broken by a man. They can never just be that way because that’s who they are.)
The Bog King is a nasty Prince of Darkness with his own rocky history with love (the full story is withheld until the third act for no real reason). His goal: find and destroy all the primrose petals that could be used to make love potions, come hell or high water. This goal makes little sense since no one has even tried to make love potions in years, and people fall in love without love potions anyway, and real love is more powerful than love potion love, plus Bog has imprisoned the only sorceress who has the power to make the potions. Which makes all those primrose petals just… fragrant. Pleasant. Not especially magical. Of course, in spite of all this, a lovesick little elf – inspired by the machinations of Roland, the supreme tool of the Fairy Kingdom – still managed to get the Sugar Plum Fairy (yep, her real name) to make him a potion, because this is a farce, and crazy plot things happen. This infuriated Bog so much that he committed mushroom genocide, but, in spite of this, it must be said, our villain’s nonsensical drive to destroy something that seems so ineffectual has made him a bit toothless.
Which actually might be sort of the point! Okay I won’t go as far as to say that the filmmakers intentionally sabotage their own plot to pave the way for a more sympathetic villain, but something about Bog’s showy menace (singing “I’m Evil” at his own rock concert, c’mon) that isn’t really menace as much as an open wound seems intentional, because guess what? After an initial sword fight, Marianne and the Bog King find out they have feelings for each other, though their feelings seem a bit atypical (they fall in love in front of a flower arrangement that has misspelled “Love” as “Lofe”).
It took them a while to come to terms with this, because they both have had their heart broken and have gone to extremes to stop that from happening again, and because they are rulers of two rival kingdoms of majestic fairies and oozing swamp creatures. But ultimately they realized that, as unlikely as they are as a pair, they really are meant for each other – Marianne’s thorny personality and thirst for adventure fits as melodiously with Bog’s mercurial but ultimately sweet nature as do the voices of Even Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming as they lock into harmony on the film’s musical centerpiece, ELO’s “Strange Magic.”
That’s what they’re doing right before Roland swaddles the proceedings in a “Beauty and the Beast” (wet) blanket: flying through the Dark Forest, which, with Bog around gently guiding you through the thorns, is transformed into a shadowy but majestic wonderland. Everything that seemed malevolent before now carries a natural wonder, and the emotions flying between the two courting lovers are swoon-worthy. At this point, just about everything in the movie is clicking. (Just about. Maya Rudolph’s blatant Jewish mother schtick is never anything less than off-putting.)
Bog’s henchman initially seemed a little bit too reminiscent of Pain and Panic from Hercules, but they’ve developed a personality all their own, and their confusion over whether they need to develop an “antidote” or an “anecdote” is both hilarious and understandable. The Imp – an adorable rat-like creature whose sole motivation seems to be stealing the love potion and causing mischief – and the Sugar Plum Fairy – a psychedelic lava lamp sorceress who sings with the dulcet soprano of Kristen Chenoweth – are getting a lot of play, which is great because all the movie’s inspired visuals surround them, meaning that when they’re on screen you forget how creepy the normal faces look. The movie has even managed to turn it’s shaky opening into an asset, as the film’s opening number, a mashup of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Crazy in Love,” has been turned on its head. More savvy than it initially seems, Strange Magic mines the dark side of pop lyrics like “I can’t HELP falling in love” and “Got me looking so CRAZY in love,” making it clear that the way society puts a priority on conventional beauty made Roland’s looks as potent as any love potion. Marianne is seemingly the only one that had that spell broken (her sister Dawn, for example, is an inveterate flirt). The connection to zombie-like fecklessness is made even more explicit as the viral spread of love potion dust turns the whole forest into a loony bin filled with lust-filled lovers whose crazed anthem is “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
That’s Strange Magic at its best: like Glee when it’s on its game (spotty track record there), it throws archetypes and pop hits into a stew and wows you with the professionalism of its performers while preaching a message of inclusivity in the face of a world that wants to keep people in their assigned boxes. But to get there, it trades in high camp, and without a true mastery of that tone, it just as often misses its intended mark.
In that, Strange Magic is reminiscent of Evan Rachel Wood’s last musical venture, Across the Universe, which tried to use the entire Beatles catalog to capture the tumult of an entire decade. That too is a film that seems so shallow that characters are clearly named to fit lyrics in famous songs that push the plotline too and fro. In Strange Magic, Wood proves for a second time that she is a phenomenal singer, but she finds herself trapped once again in a musical spectacular that, in spite of being worthwhile on a vignette-by-vignette level, doesn’t have much to say beyond “All You Need Is Love. “
At least Strange Magic lets people preserve their eccentricities while exploring this need for love (the princess who says “I’m stronger alone” has to be proven wrong). The best thing about Strange Magic is that it corrects the one issue Beauty and the Beast does have: when love is admitted, the filmmakers don’t sand the rough edges off the beastly character and magically turn him into Fabio.
Bog attempts to tell Marianne how he feels by parroting the film’s mad cry of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” Marianne, who understands that their feelings are unique and require a unique form of expression, interrupts Bog and begins shouting about how he’s a Wild Thing that makes her heart sing. One might expect her to find a man who makes her want to be a proper princess, sans eyeliner and sword, again, but these two happily share their love at a level they find comfortable (a high shredding volume) rather than the level society finds comfortable.
(And okay sure, Shrek got THERE first, but give Strange Magic this; at least it had enough confidence in itself by its final song to not make an ogre reference that casts attention once again to the better films that beat it to its worthwhile message.)