There was a time, before the age of logic and reason, when George Lucas’s name held a certain creative clout. “A George Lucas film you say? Like the Star Wars? I want to see what that many cooked up this time!” Such words can no longer be uttered with a straight face in this day and age, for, like mighty Icarus, George flew too close to the sun, and is remembered more for his disastrous failures than for how high he flew. Indeed, there is much to be learned from the failures of George Lucas, and the internet has poured over them with a fine toothed comb in laborious detail. Yet what of his triumphs? What of the heights he achieved? We all know the man’s weaknesses by heart in this day and age, but in doing so have we forgotten his strengths?
Like, I assume, most of you reading this, I did not see Strange Magic when Disney unceremoniously dumped it into theaters using their Touchstone imprint and hastily swept it under the rug with little fanfare. I heard of it, because there was a brief yet strident ad campaign for it, and said campaign did not make a good impression. From its trailers, you would learn two things about Strange Magic: first, it was from the mind of George Lucas, long after his name had become mud; and second, if the trailer was to be believed, every line of dialogue was crafted by some sort of algorithm designed to find only the most trite and overused cliches in children’s films and assemble a script from them. It looked like box office poison, and that is what it became.
But what if I told you the trailers lied? What if I told you this was not the Lucas who crashed into the sea, his flesh scalded by melting wax, his face contorted in pain as the waves overtook him? What if I told you this was Lucas playing to his strengths? What if, most importantly of all, I told you this was only produced by Lucas and actually directed by someone who knows how to make Lucas’s good ideas come to life, like almost every GOOD film that bears the man’s name?
It is all those things, my friends. Strange Magic isn’t the last of Lucas’s many failures – it’s his last success, at least from a story telling perspective. Don’t believe me? Good – let me show you then.
One of the reasons I like Strange Magic as much as I do is that it does a very good job of summarizing the differences and relationship between Seelie and Unseelie faeries, even if it never uses those terms explicitly. Our movie begins with exposition explaining that it is the story of two kingdoms, “side by side but worlds apart.” One is a kingdom of light, and the other a kingdom of shadow, and between them bloom primroses, which are used to make love potions.
We see the light kingdom first, and it is populated by brightly colored flowers, lush trees, and pretty, humanoid fairies with large, beautiful butterfly wings. One fairy – our protagonist, Marianne – is picking flower petals when she accidentally crosses the border between kingdoms, and is confronted by a variety of scary looking goblins. She runs away, dropping one of her petals – a primrose petal, specifically – in the process. Two small goblins take note of this and run off to inform their king. We get a good look at the dark kingdom during their journey, seeing its gnarly trees, shaggy flora, and menacing residents. The king of the dark kingdom, while technically a humanoid fairy with insect wings like those of the light kingdom, is given details that make him more menacing, from his armored skin to his dragonfly-esque wings. Seething with anger, the king of the dark forest commands that every primrose must be cut down to prevent the creation of love potions, for in his eyes love only creates chaos.
A brief aside: one of George Lucas’s greatest skills as a creator of films has been the ability to find great character and set designers, and I feel he flexes that skill very well here. The character design in particular is wonderful in this movie. Every creature oozes with charm, from the lovably scuzzy and varied goblins of the dark forest to even the traditionally beautiful fairies of the light kingdom. Each design has a mix of cute and creepy elements – even the light fairies, whose mostly human features have a touch of the strange to them in a manner not dissimilar from, say, the gelflings in The Dark Crystal. The designs are also incredibly expressive, which is perfectly suited for the knowingly melodramatic nature of the story’s plot.
Marianne returns home and runs into her fiance, Roland, a blonde, chiseled male fairy clad in shining green armor. They sing a duet – did I mention this is a jukebox musical? It’s a jukebox musical. That may be a deal breaker for you, IDK – of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” while going in separate directions to prepare for their wedding day. At the end of the duet they cross paths again, only for Marianne to see Roland making out with a different fairy. On their wedding day.
This was when the movie first surprised me – there are hints from his first lines that Roland is a huge piece of shit, but normally our female protagonist wouldn’t discover his true nature until the climax of the film. Instead, Strange Magic has her learn that her hunky suitor is a garbage person within the first fifteen minutes of the film, and stranger still, she never waffles on it. From this point on, Roland is dirt in Marianne’s eyes. It’s… it’s kind of great? It’s really great, honestly. Good on you Marianne. You take out that trash.
Marianne calls off the wedding and announces her refusal to ever fall in love again, triumphantly singing “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” while giving herself a more gothy/punk rock makeover. Again this is just… rad. It’s rad an unexpected. She went from typical Disney Princess to Meg from Hercules in the span of five minutes, and she never goes back. From this point on, Marianne is bitter, jaded, and viciously skeptical of romance, and the movie treats this like a good thing.
There’s a brief time-skip/flash forward as we see Marianne’s sister, Dawn, scheming to pick up hot boys with the help of her best friend, an elf named Sunny – Keebler style elf, mind you, rather than Tolkien. Sunny very clearly has a crush on Dawn, and Dawn very clearly has no idea about it. Sunny borders on nice guy syndrome throughout the movie without ever fully falling into it, but we’ll get into that more later. A big ol’ lizard arrives and tries to eat both Sunny and Dawn, but Marianne arrives to rescue them. The chase takes them to the border of the two kingdom where, once again, primroses are growing.
The two fairy princesses return home to attend a ball, where Marianne’s father, the king, attempts to get her back with Roland because he thinks Marianne will be safer with a king at her side. Roland makes a big show of the occasion, singing “C’mon Marianne,” but our heroine interrupts him mid song to belt out the lyrics of “Stronger” while chasing his worthless ass out of her goddamn house. Again, this is something I’d expect to happen at, like, the climax of the movie, and it’s happening at the start. Marianne just doesn’t have time for this pretty boy’s bullshit.
(I suppose both Belle and Jasmine beat her to the punch in this regard but still, Marianne’s intolerance of fuckbois needs to be acknowledged).
Outside the ball, Roland notices Sunny pining after Dawn, and tries to manipulate the elf into making a love potion. Sunny points out that the only one who can make the potion is the Sugar Plum Fairy, who has been a captive of the Dark Forest for ages, and Roland convinces Sunny to find her and make the potion so that way both of them can marry the two princesses. The badgered elf finally agrees, and sets off with a primrose petal to find the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Talking mushrooms spot Sunny entering the Dark Forest and get word to their king, albeit with a bit of miscommunication caused by the king’s bumbling goblin henchmen, Stuff and Thang. The Bog King sends all of his minions out looking for Sunny, being dead set on keeping anyone from using the love potion ever again. Much like our heroine, the king of the Dark Forest is pretty cynical when it comes to romance.
A short scene follows this where Sunny meets the Imp, an opposum-faced creature that helps him through the perils of the Dark Forest, before we cut to Marianne being badgered by her father to marry someone. “You’ll be a stronger ruler with a king by your side!” Marianne’s father implores, while Marianne argues that she’s just fine on her own and will only get married if she can find a guy who she doesn’t want to punch on sight. Hmm. She also notes, correctly, that Roland is a fuckboi who just wants the power of the throne rather than actual love.
Sunny finds the Sugar Plum Fairy, whose performance is incredibly energetic and eccentric even by the standards of this film – in an entertaining way, mind you. She makes the love potion on the condition that Sunny free her when it’s done, all to the tune of “Love is Strange.” At the same time, and to the same tune no less, we see the Bog King’s mother trying to hook him up with various suitors, only for him to shoot down the whole concept while seething with irritation. Hmmmmmmmmm. Sunny and Sugar Plum escape, though the Sugar Plum Fairy is almost immediately recaptured by the Bog King because she wastes a lot of time loudly celebrating her freedom. The Imp tries to steal the love potion, but Sunny knocks the little creature away, while back at the castle the Bog King tells his troops to invade the light kingdom in order to reclaim the love potion.
All of our characters arrive at an elf festival. Sunny leads a band while trying to uncork the love potion to use on Dawn, who in turn is dancing with every boy she sees. Marianne watches over her sister, while Roland tries to get the potion to use on her. The imp arrives and fights Sunny for the potion, causing him to spray it on Dawn just as goblins arrive and cram her into a burlap sack. The Bog King arrives mere seconds after the Imp absconds with the potion, and everything by this point has thoroughly gone to shit. Notably, the song the Bog King sings during this moment, “Mistreated”, emphasizes why this scene doesn’t get MORE violent than it is – though the Bog King may be “evil,” the light kingdom is the one that broke the rules by invading his land first. You know how fairies are about rules.
The Bog King issues an ultimatum: he will keep Princess Dawn hostage, and if the fairies don’t return the love potion by moondown (i.e. sunrise), then things will escalate. Marianne, Sunny, and Roland all embark on separate missions to the Dark Forest: Marianne to rescue Dawn, Sunny to reclaim the love potion, and Roland to just, like, start shit with a foreign power. That’s not a joke, by the way, Roland is a war hawk who explictly wants to go to war with the Dark Forest kingdom. He’s a piece of shit.
Back in the Dark Forest, the Bog King orders Dawn to be brought before him. Now, the rules of the love potion state that those affected by it will fall in love with the first creature they see, and after spending all that time in a burlap sack, the first creature Dawn sees is the Bog King. She falls in love immediately, and begins singing “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” which drives the Bog King and all of his subjects absolutely up the wall. A song this perky is anathema to their carefully crafted goth aesthetic, you see, and soon all the unseelies are literally screaming in pain at this overly peppy love song. Only the Bog King’s mother is delighted, believing the Bog King has finally found someone, though the Bog King angrily notes that he hates love songs and princesses.
Meanwhile, the Imp has been busy peppering every creature he sees with the love potion, creating all sorts of odd, mismatched couples all throughout both kingdoms. Sunny and a big muscular elf try to stop him, only for the Imp to make the big lizard from earlier fall in love with them. It’s a little bit like a Looney Tunes cartoon, but in a delightful way. It comes back to bite the Imp on the butt, too, because eventually our two elves tame the lizard and use her help to capture the Imp and reclaim the potion.
Dawn’s singing continues to drive the Bog King and his servants nuts, and the Sugar Plum Fairy refuses to make them an antidote. Desperate, the Bog King tries to shut Dawn up himself, only to find himself at a loss for words when she gives him a boutineer as a gift. Overwhelmed at the affection, he nonetheless notes that her love isn’t genuine, and that it’s the potion making her feel this way – which inadvertently makes him seem a bit more moral than our other prominent male characters. Hmm. He finally convinces Dawn to take a nap, just in time for a henchmen to tell him that MORE creatures have been dusted with the love potion. The Bog King demands that they all be taken to his castle to await the creation of an antidote, and it’s at this point in the film you realize that he’s not the obviously evil antagonist you probably thought he was.
This is why I think this movie is a good way to summarize what Seelie and Unseelie fairies are. Most people oversimplify the two categories, with Seelies being “good” fairies and Unseelies being “evil.” While the two do form a dichotomy, “good” and “evil” aren’t wholly applicable. Seelies may be prettier and more “civilized,” but they can be assholes, and Unseelies may be fearsome and ugly, but they can still be decent. Seelies are light, Unseelies are dark, but neither is necessarily good or evil. Like people, Fairies are complex.
Marianne finally makes it to the Bog King’s castle, and immediately engages the monarch in a sword fight while the pair sing “Straight On” in a scene that was so good that it made me go out and buy a copy of this movie after watching it on youtube. Seriously, dig that clip up if you’re still skeptical after reading this review – it showcases the wonderful character and set designs, some endearing character moments (the one henchman goblin – voiced by Peter Stormare of all people – repeatedly asking his boss if he needs help, Marianne lampshading the occasionally nonsensical-in-context lyrics of a Jukebox musical, etc.), and best of all, the ultimate romantic fantasy: a man being attacked by an angry woman with a sword. By the end of the fight, both the Bog King and Marianne are panting and out of breath, and also more than a bit cheerful since they both enjoy fighting a worthy opponent. Hmm!
The two travel through the Bog King’s dungeon, which is filled with mismatched couples, and the Bog King notes that this is one of the reasons he doesn’t want the love potion loose on the world. It ends with Marianne seeing her sister has fallen for the Bog King, and despite herself Marianne has to agree that he’s right to both hate the love potion AND desire an antidote. The pair ask the Sugar Plum Fairy for the antidote, but her list of ingredients is incredibly long, so the two wait upstairs at the Bog King’s mother’s request.
Of course, the Bog King’s mother has turned the whole situation into a romantic date, having noticed what you might have thanks to my many “Hmm”s: the Bog King and Marianne are kind of… compatible. Both quickly catch onto what’s going on and, after a shared moment of awkward realization, proceed to have fun tearing the room’s romantic decorations apart, all while joyfully agreeing with each other about how much love sucks. In fact, they get downright chummy in talking about how much they hate romance! Hmm!
It turns out the Sugar Plum Fairy’s list of ingredients was actually just her shopping list, since, “In prison it’s hard to shop!”, and that the actual antidote is a riddle: “The only thing more powerful than the potion itself.” She eventually gives them the answer in the form of the Bog King’s backstory: it turns out the Bog King fell in love once, and was impatient enough to ask for the love potion. He used it on the object of his affection, only for him to reject him. The Bog King believed it was because he was too hideous for anyoen to love him, even with a potion. However, the Sugar Plum Fairy corrects him: the potion failed because the goblin was already in love with someone else, as the only thing stronger than the love potion is True Love itself. Marianne notes that this “antidote” can’t help Dawn, since Dawn has never been in love with anyone, and the Bog King reflects on how evil it was to use the love potion in the past. The pair commiserate over the pain of falling in love with someone who didn’t love them back, with Marianne getting particularly vocal over how bad Roland is. Both accidentally let slip how they like aspects of each other, and Marianne suggests that they go stretch their wings while they try to find a solution to the problem.
The two have a sweet montage where they fly through the Dark Forest, in which the movie takes several details about it that were played for fear earlier in the film and reveals them to be beautiful. Spiderwebs, venus flytraps, millipedes, ferns, and even the gnarled branches of the trees all become beautiful before our eyes, all while Marianne and the Bog King sing “Strange Magic” as a duet. It’s the sort of enchanting love montage animated fantasy films often have, but it’s here for more reasons than just formula. This scene is, in many ways, the point of this movie – everything can be beautiful, and, as both the opening narration and the film’s tagline claim, “everyone deserves to be loved.” It’s also the moment where the movie finally fully admits that the Bog King and Marianne are our two leads, and you know what? I ship it.
Sadly, Roland’s army arrives at the end of the montage, and the Bog King is furious at the apparent betrayal, believing that Marianne was distracting him while reinforcements arrived. Roland can’t go five seconds without discussing how ugly and unpleasant he finds everything in the Dark Forest, making it clear that his grudge against it is purely on aesthetics. The Bog King and Marianne both confront him, and Roland quickly realizes something is going on between the two, much to his disgust.
Meanwhile, Sunny engineers a jailbreak of all the Bog King’s prisoners, which is fortuitous given that Roland has sent three henchment to destroy the castle holding them all. Roland tries to dust Marianne with the love potion, but the Bog King jumps to her aid, and soon enough both our lovers are kicking Roland’s pretty boy butt. The castle starts to collapse, and our heroes struggle to get everyone to safety, with the poor Bog King barely managing to get Dawn out before being struck with falling debris.
Just kidding, he survives.
The citizens of both kingdom gather together. Sunny hugs Dawn, and she realizes she’s loved him this whole time, breaking the effects of the potion. The Bog King rises out of the rubble and is celebrated by all present, dark and light citizens alike. Roland tries to dust Marianne one last time and she kicks his ass off a cliff. Then, after a bit of prodding by their respective friends and family, Marianne and the Bog King admit their love for each other by singing “Wild Thing,” and everything comes to a happy end.
Also in a stinger Roland falls in love with a bug.
Strange Magic is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s corny and unapologetically sentimental. Its plot is concerned with romantic love, which is well trodden territory in the history of, like, all art ever. If you go into this movie looking for a reason to hate it, you’ll find it. Many people did – after all, George Lucas was involved, so what could there be to like? It’s very satisfying to find a reason to hate and criticize a story – it makes you feel bigger when you do.
If you don’t got into this movie looking for an object of ridicule, however, you’ll find it has beautifully designed characters, lush environments, and stunning visuals. You’ll find it has lovable characters who don’t quite fit the molds you expect them to, and a plot that actually has some detailed and nuanced thoughts on the subject of love – far more so than is typical for a film of this type. It’s got wonderful performances by talented actors, a great deal of heart, and an honest message about how beauty can be found everywhere. Everything deserves a chance to be loved – and Strange Magic is no exception. Perhaps you’ll find a place in your heart for it too.