If someone told you that you had the power to ban any one song from ever being covered by any newer artist ever again in the history of time, what would you pick? I don’t mean some easy mediocrity like “Never Gonna Give You up.” I mean something that people always cover, and make you want to shoot them every single time.
For me, it’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” It was blahhh even for Elvis, and has gotten steadily worse with every subsequent take on it by idiots who think it sounds deeply romantic. UB-40’s version alone should have killed it dead, but instead, here it is opening a new George Lucas CGI-fest. Dumb Gungan say/Meesa in big dudu now.
But it’s too easy to dismiss George Lucas entirely for his more annoying instincts, just as it’s irritating when some fanboys praise his every impulse no matter how poorly considered. Strange Magic, directed by longtime Lucasfilm sound guy Gary Rydstrom but shepherded every step of the way by The Chinless Beard, is full of many of the same strengths and weaknesses the father of Star Wars has always had. If nowadays the weaknesses win out, it’s probably because nobody ever seems to tell him something is a bad idea. And yet there’s just enough in there to see that the spark’s not completely dead.
One thing George Lucas is indisputably good at is world-building. From Labyrinth to even his misbegotten version of Duck World, he thinks the ecosystem through. The Gungans may be the most moronic race to ever live in the oceans, but even Phantom Menace haters have to acknowledge that Naboo is so diverse in wildlife that LucasArts made a whole game about its environment.
One thing he is fucking terrible at, on the other hand, is love stories. At best, when we’re being generous, we can acknowledge that he managed a decent pairing of the only woman in the universe with the only eligible guy on the spaceship she was fleeing in. At worst, we have Willow‘s love potion…which is exactly the same goddamn plot device Strange Magic centers on (it has just as many annoying fairies, too). In what is supposed to be a loose interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “love” is represented as either the product of a drug, or a slightly enhanced version of the friendzone.
Setting a familiar tale in a new world with familiar pop songs old and new, I THINK Lucas was trying to replicate little girl play patterns with dolls the same way The Lego Movie replicated boy play patterns with toy bricks. It doesn’t quite work, and its worst, this feels like an entire movie made up of those moments in Dreamworks cartoons where every character suddenly stops what they’re doing and dances to a current pop hit.
In Strange Magic, the world is divided into a light, happy kingdom of fairies and elves, and a dark wood ruled by the Bog King (Alan Cumming), so named despite the fact that he rules a forest, and there is no bog in evidence. Happy Princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is due to marry Johnny Bravo wanna-be Roland (Sam Palladio), who’s dumb enough to kiss another girl in a wide open field when he knows his fianc?e can fucking fly. She dumps him, but he still wants her hand so he can be royal heir and have an army. Meanwhile, jive-talking elf Sunny (Elijah Kelley), is crushing hard on Marianne’s sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), so he makes a deal with Roland to enter the forest, find the captured sugarplum fairy who can make love potion, and both can get the girls they want. Things go awry when the potion leaks at the wrong time, Marianne hilariously goes goth out of bitterness, and Dawn falls for the grotesque Bog King. All of this is achieved by musical numbers, from Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” to the Doors’ “People Are Strange.”
Oh, did I mention there’s a clumsy comic relief character with big floppy ears? Or that the Bog King has a screechy Jewish Mom stereotype named Griselda (presumably a Jabberwocky reference)? Because those things happen.
Giving some credit where credit is due, Lucas is still a solid editor, with minro Busby Berkeley visual tributes, or aerial action sequences never leaving any doubt as to where characters are or what they’re doing – this may seem like a minor skill until you watch a Roland Emmerich flick. And even if most of the CG characters are ugly as all hell, I never questioned their reality once the story got going; the world feels tangible and weighty. In the tale of the Bog King, one also senses some semi-autobiographical content – the ruler of an empire, deserted by his true love who loved another, only now opening himself up to the experience again after being trapped by formula and his expected role. Yep. I’d expect he relates to that.
It might work if he’d let the film sit still long enough to absorb it, but there’s still the obligatory ADD mayhem and cheesy humor that kiddie movies are all expected to have now. And while movies like Watchmen and Moulin Rouge use familiar songs to anchor you in alternate realities, the pop ditties here play as lazy, obvious substitutes for any attempt at deeper thought.
I’ll give credit to Strange Magic where many won’t – I think Lucas and Rydstrom were earnestly trying to make something different for little girls. It gives me no great pleasure to report that they have mostly failed.