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George Walton Lucas Jr. will forever be remembered for Star Wars. His non-Star Wars work, however, is about as fascinating and inconsistent in quality as his more famous work. For every Labyrinth and Indiana Jones, there was a Howard the Duck, and also Strange Magic.
This is the final non-Star Wars project Lucas and Lucasfilm worked on together before he sold the company to Disney, and it’s a bizarre, not exactly great movie. However, it is still a visually dazzling film that’s the closest we’ve come to an animated version of Moulin Rouge. So, play your favorite song and sing along as we revisit Strange Magic.
After a string of commercial failures in the 1980s, and the Star Wars prequels taking up all of George Lucas’ time in the late ’90s and early ’00s, it seemed like the filmmaker was done making projects not set in a galaxy far, far away. But even before he made Indiana Jones hide in a refrigerator during a nuclear explosion, he was thinking of another movie: an animated jukebox musical inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And he was dead-set on pulling a Shrek-like twist on Disney princess movies, particularly Beauty and the Beast.
According to Lucas, he envisioned a story that would end like Beauty and the Beast, except the beast doesn’t turn into a handsome prince in the end. Yes, Lucas pulled a Shape of Water, except he didn’t have any sort of social commentary in mind, other than making a challenge for himself to create a franchise for 12-year-old girls, and to create a narrative based solely on existing song lyrics. It’s a natural progression from what Lucas did in his 1973 film American Graffiti, only blown to a new proportion. According to Entertainment Weekly, the production recorded over 400 songs to make up the story, with “barely five percent making the final cut.
The story is set on the border between two magical kingdoms, one of fairies and elves, the other of goblins, imps and insect-like creatures. At the center of it is a love potion that can destroy everything both kingdoms have worked for, but also spark some unforeseen romances.
Let’s get something out of the way first. No, this is not exactly George Lucas returning to form and giving us a timeless fantasy film with a great romance, characters, and story. Nor is it exactly a pinnacle of technological and special effects achievement. But is it as bad as the worst aspects of the prequel trilogy? Absolutely not.
Strange Magic was released at a time when studios seemed to think everyone wanted animated movies to look photorealistic, and we got films like Epic, Rango, and every atrocity Robert Zemeckis did. Strange Magic feels like it’s stuck in the middle of both approaches, with ultra-realistic backgrounds and characters that have enough cartoonish features to counteract its motion-capture-like animation style that borders on the uncanny valley. But if you buy into it, and the film has thankfully aged with surprising grace, it’s a nice change from Disney’s current visual style.
The songs are the biggest problem, as the film clearly wants to be a Hamilton-style all-singing-no-talking musical, but without original songs or even a reason for the film to be like it is. Lucas was clearly inspired by Moulin Rouge, going as far as getting the music director of that film, Marius De Vries, to work on Strange Magic. That being said, there are some good musical moments in the film, like the rendition of the titular “Strange Magic” by ELO, or Jim Cummings singing Deep Purple’s “Mistreated.”
In interviews, Lucas expressed his desire to move away from Star Wars, the franchise he constantly deemed as being “for 12-year-old boys” and make something for 12-year-old girls. Alan Scherstuhl wrote for The Village Voice that the film seemed like Lucas finally growing past old-Hollywood assumptions, as well as his own mistakes in terrible portrayals of ethnic stereotypes, and challenging the assumption “that the white-dude hero is the norm from which all villainy deviates.” First he produced Red Tails, about the Tuskegee airmen, and then he wrote Strange Magic, his first film starring a female protagonist — though at this time he had also already written a treatment for the Star Wars sequel trilogy starring the young woman who would become Rey.
Then there’s the film’s central idea of love, particularly in how it changes the ending to Beauty and the Beast. In the second half of the film, once the fairy princess Marianne attacks the Bog King in order to save her sister, it starts becoming increasingly infatuated with the man she previously described as a “scaly-backed cockroach.” Lucas reportedly wanted the film to really challenge our notions of beauty and love, and the film spends a lot of time subverting how traditional fairy tales portray love. The film portrays “traditional” love as mostly false or disingenuous. The pretty soldier boy betrothed to the princess cheats on her at the beginning of the film, and the love potion Lucas borrows from Shakespeare causes nothing but trouble for anyone affected by it. Instead, the film’s portrayal of true love comes when characters start considering each other as equals, no matter their differences.
This is very different than Shrek, which also tried to subvert the ending to Beauty and the Beast by having the princess turn into a monster, but it still ends up perpetuating the idea that a traditionally beautiful person can’t be with an “ugly” person. Strange Magic is different, because it doesn’t return things to normal by the end of the film. The Bog King doesn’t transform, physically or otherwise. It doesn’t look like there is instant peace or that prejudices are gone. The old Fairy King — looking suspiciously similar to Lucas himself — covers his face so he doesn’t have to see his daughters kissing those he deems as different. It’s certainly a bolder way to end a film than Shrek, and even does some things better than Frozen. Strange Magic is certainly not perfect, or revolutionary, or even particularly magical, but it does try to do something a little bit different. Just like the Star Wars prequels, Lucas aims high, and though it doesn’t always work, it’s the intent that carries us through.
Strange Magic was one of the last projects in production when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, and it sadly got unceremoniously dumped in theaters without much promotion. That –combined with the movie coming right on the heels of Frozen – certainly didn’t help the film, which had the lowest ticket sales of any animated film released in over 3,000 theaters and was deemed a commercial and critical failure.
Trolls would later take the formula of this movie and made a splash just one year later, but by then Strange Magic was all but forgotten. The film was added to Disney+ at launch without much fanfare, before being removed a few months later without explanation. But at last, the film is back on the streaming service, and there’s no better time to watch the last thing George Lucas worked on before handing the reins of his company to Disney.
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