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Strange Magic DVD Review

Strange Magic (2015) movie poster Strange Magic

Theatrical Release: January 23, 2015 / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Gary Rydstrom / Writers: George Lucas (story); David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, Gary Rydstrom (screenplay)

Voice Cast: Alan Cumming (Bog King), Evan Rachel Wood (Marianne), Elijah Kelley (Sunny), Meredith Anne Bull (Dawn), Sam Palladio (Roland), Kristin Chenoweth (Sugar Plum Fairy), Maya Rudolph (Griselda), Alfred Molina (Fairy King), Bob Einstein (Stuff), Peter Stormare (Thang), Kevin Michael Richardson (Brutus), Llou Johnson (Pare), Robbie Daymond (Fairy Cronies), Brenda Chapman (Imp), Tony Cox (Plum Elf), Sterling Sheehy (Beakboy), Gary Rydstrom (Angry Gus)

Songs: "Can't Help Falling in Love", "I'll Never Fall in Love Again", "Three Little Birds", "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)", "C'mon Marianne", "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)", "Trouble", "Love Is Strange", "Say Hey (I Love You)", "Mistreated", "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)", "Rock-A-Bye Baby", "Straight On", "Strange Magic", "I Gotta Feeling", "Tell Him", "Wild Thing", "Crazy in Love" / Score-Incorporated: "Barracuda", "Addicted to Love", "Rebel Rebel", "Bad Romance", "Without You", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"

Buy Strange Magic from Amazon.com: DVD Instant Video

Star Wars, as the iconic film was simply originally called, was enough to secure a permanent place in cinema history for its writer-director George Lucas. Having just turned 33 before that space opera opened, Lucas had already written and directed THX 1138 and the hit Best Picture nominee American Graffiti.
But Star Wars changed everything, from the movie industry at large to Lucas' individual calling. Never again would the lifelong Californian be content to make a small personal coming-of-age comedy. Now, Lucas was a franchise builder, who allowed others to write and direct his inevitable sequels but remained firmly in control as a deeply invested executive producer.

In between the second and third Star Wars movies, Lucas and friend Steven Spielberg launched another blockbuster franchise with Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the late 1980s, the original Star Wars trilogy had been completed and Indiana Jones' saga was wrapping up, but Lucas remained busy with countless projects expanding these lucrative empires, from animated TV series to theme park attractions. Lucas was well on his way to his current estimated net worth of $5 billion. That enormous, unprecedented commercial success came at a cost. No longer was George Lucas just a USC-trained filmmaker; now, he was a powerful media mogul forever associated with Star Wars and, to a lesser degree, Indiana Jones.

For twenty-two years after the first Star Wars opened, Lucas took not a single directing credit. His filmography during this time is so full of executive producer and character credits that it's tough to find anything else of significance outside his franchises that he truly worked on. There were the 1980s fantasy films Willow (story & executive producer) and Labyrinth (executive producer). There was the notorious Howard the Duck, for which he receives more blame than any other executive producer would. There were further collaborations with his friends Spielberg (The Land Before Time) and Francis Ford Coppola (Tucker: The Man and His Dream), where Lucas' input may well have been nominal. The period crime comedy Radioland Murders came and went in 1994 with hardly anyone taking notice, despite Lucas taking a now rare story credit.

Then, the only person who could bring Star Wars back did just that, writing, directing and executive producing the three millennial prequels. Though insanely profitable, the newer trilogy is not especially well-regarded, particularly not by adults who grew up on the original Luke Skywalker-centered trio. The prequels' mixed reception seems to have driven Lucas, now 71, into semi-retirement. He was so intimately involved in and protective of every facet of the Star Wars saga, down to fan-infuriating edits and touch-ups, that it was kind of staggering for Lucas in 2012 to sell Lucasfilm and all its holdings to The Walt Disney Company. Lucas remains a creative consultant on the new age of Star Wars that will begin with this December's seventh episode. But he has passed on the creative reins to J.J. Abrams and others.

A paper heart hangs over the heads of the Bog King and Marianne, the beauty and beast couple of George Lucas' "Strange Magic."

You might be surprised to learn that The Force Awakens will not be Disney's first theatrical release born out their Lucasfilm acquisition. That already occurred this past January on a film called Strange Magic. Never heard of it? You're not alone. This computer-animated fantasy made about as little an impression as a film released in over 3,000 theaters can. Not screened for critics, it was eventually decimated by those who paid to review it, all of whom noted the only man that posters credited: George Lucas.

Billed "From the Mind of George Lucas", Strange Magic gives Lucas story credit in addition to his more commonplace EP duties. Lucas' name held little sway over moviegoers, who avoided this undermarketed movie that had been kept entirely under wraps until just a couple of months before its opening and whose budget remains a complete mystery.

Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the film is set in Fairy Kingdom and Dark Forest, realms that are "side by side but worlds apart" which are separated by primroses. The butterfly winged pretty pixies of Fairy Kingdom are markedly different from the slimy monochrome goblins of Dark Forest, whose rocky, cynical leader The Bog King (voiced by Alan Cumming) is determined to eliminate love. To that end, the ruler has banished the love potion-brewing, shape-shifting Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth).

An elf named Sunny tracks down the Sugar Plum Fairy to cast a love potion in "Strange Magic."

Eager to marry into royalty, the handsome, shallow fairy Roland (Sam Palladio) enlists black elf Sunny (Elijah Kelley) to track down the Sugar Plum Fairy and obtain a love potion, which Roland intends to use on his formerly betrothed, the tough, independent brunette princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood). Instead, the two worlds collide and Marianne's sister, boy-crazy blonde Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) falls for The Bog King himself.

Strange Magic unfolds with covers, mash-ups, reconfigurations, and reprises of pop songs from all over the years. The title comes from an Electric Light Orchestra number performed climactically. It is just one of many familiar tunes that are sung by characters, giving the movie the feel of a rock opera. Among the more prominent songs performed anew are Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love", Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange", Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds", Michael Franti & Spearhead's "Say Hey (I Love You)",
Deep Purple's "Mistreated", the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)", and The Troggs' "Wild Thing." Others, like Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance", Heart's "Barracuda", and Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" are incorporated into Marius de Vries' score. No matter how enjoyable the original songs are, their new interpretations here are universally unpleasant. That is less the fault of the cast than of those who believed in animated characters singing old love songs.

Somehow, I don't think Strange Magic is what Lucas had in mind when he proclaimed in late 2012 that though finished with Star Wars he would continue to make his "own little personal films." Maybe it was. Certainly, the film, in development since the Star Wars prequels, was already in some stage of production by then. His quote "The ones I'm working on now will never get into the theaters" may not have applied, but then Strange Magic's exhibition is full of questions. Like how, even with the backing but not branding of Disney (the now scarce Touchstone Pictures banner was invoked), did this original animated film could so easily book 3,020 North American movie houses? And why did nearly half of those theaters keep the movie for a not contractually obligated third week after its disastrous 7th place opening, the worst ever debut for a wide release animated film?

These two royal fairy sisters are quite different; blonde Dawn is boy-crazy, while heartbroken Marianne swears off love.

In truth, Strange Magic is not as terrible as its overwhelmingly negative reviews and toxic reception suggest. The film joins a tradition of CG-animated films opening in January or February to generally poor notices and unpredictable commercial results.
If you're comparing Strange Magic to the likes of Doogal, Happily N'ever After, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything, Gnomeo & Juliet, Escape from Planet Earth, and The Nut Job, you are probably more likely to overlook and forgive its faults. Unfortunately, Strange Magic is not being judged purely against the off-season openings but animation at large, which includes much better musicals and fantasies with similar themes and settings. It takes a Strange Magic to see anything in Cars 2 worthy of appreciation.

I feel little need to add my voice to the chorus that has attacked the film. I will say that it is odd for an animated film to be this tone-deaf, considering the amount of time and money needed to bring them to fruition. I will also point out that Strange Magic is the kind of thing you might expect from upstart young musical theatre types, not from wealthy old legends and seasoned veterans. But it indeed emanates from the latter, which explains the evidently deep-pocketed music licensing budget.

Lucas' longtime sound designer Gary Rydstrom, once supposed to make his feature directing debut at Pixar on newt (a film that was curiously axed in 2010), mans the helm here, doing no favors for a career that has won him seven sound Oscars on such landmark achievements as Jurassic Park, Titanic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Saving Private Ryan. Rydstrom, whose directing resume previously consisted of two minor Pixar shorts (Lifted and the Toy Story toon Hawaiian Vacation), shares story credit with Disney and Pixar veteran Irene Mecchi (The Lion King, Brave, Hercules) and David Berenbaum (Elf, The Spiderwick Chronicles). Castoff Brave co-writer/director Brenda Chapman (also of Lion King and Hunchback) served as story consultant and voices an imp as well.

There is unmistakable irony in the fact that Strange Magic, from the mind of medium-advancing visionary George Lucas, doesn't even get a Blu-ray edition from Disney. It is the first wide theatrical release in a very long time not treated to release on that high definition format. And with a domestic gross of just $12.4 million (significantly less than Disney's mid-Noughties Pixar replacement auditions Valiant and The Wild), you can't really blame the company for trying to save some money and face before striking it rich with their upcoming Star Wars works, even if you doubt their calculations.

Strange Magic DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Black Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

While no specific issues mar the direct digital transfer, the detail of Blu-ray is missed in the DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The animation, produced by Rango makers Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm Animation Singapore (of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" fame), is good enough not to bemoan, though not special enough to have warranted mention in the body above.

Also, though fine on its own merits, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack naturally lacks the impact of lossless HD master audio. It really is kind of bizarre to see a new animated film only released to DVD in 2015.

George Lucas attempts to explain his latest movie in "Creating the Magic." The separate song sessions of lead voice actors Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming come together along with a film clip in "Magical Mash Up."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Sometimes movies overcompensate for theatrical underperformance

with an abundance of bonus features begging you to give it another chance. Strange Magic is not one of those films. Its DVD includes just two short bonus features.

"Creating the Magic" (5:38) is a making-of featurette, in which George Lucas, director Gary Rydstrom, and voice cast members (whose recording sessions are glimpsed at) discuss the movie, its characters, and the music in general terms.

"Magical Mash Up: Outtakes, Tests and Melodies" (4:07) lives up to its title by setting animation tests, more voice recording session clips, storyboards, and outtakes to a few songs.

That's all there is, meaning you don't even find the no-brainer option for Sing-Along lyric subtitles. I suspect (but cannot prove) that a Blu-ray combo pack with a few additional extras was planned and probably even produced, but was cancelled after Disney saw just how poorly this played. The unsightly DVD banner that tops the cover art suggests as much.

Although the disc opens with no trailers, a Sneak Peeks listing plays a single long ad for "Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Lost Missions." Strange Magic's own trailer is, of course, sadly absent.

The main menu loops a routine montage, while submenus are static but scored.

Not even getting the privilege of the Disney name, Strange Magic does not come with Disney Movies Anywhere, Disney Movie Rewards, or any other inserts whatsoever in its unslipcovered plain black amaray keepcase, making the plain gray platter look even more depressing.

Marianne and the Bog King duel while engaging in a duet of Heart's "Straight On."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Strange Magic arrives ten years too late to make any significant impression with its mediocre computer-animated comedy. This George Lucas-conceived jukebox musical deserves credit for being a little different, but its love story never finds its own voice and fails to charm or divert as it wants to. The basic DVD also harks back to the not-so-distant past, its lack of high definition and digital options placing it squarely behind the times. If you're as fond of animation as I am, then you'll probably need little urging to give this a look even as just a curious, fascinating failure. Those who discover this movie down the line will be in utter disbelief this movie played in theaters in 2015.

Buy Strange Magic from Amazon.com: DVD / Instant Video

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Valiant Mars Needs Moms The Wild Star Wars: The Clone Wars Labyrinth
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Reviewed May 20, 2015.



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