George Lucas occupies a curious, singular place in our culture. He should be feeling triumphant. After endless criticism that he had all but destroyed his baby with his handling of the Star Wars prequels, Lucas bowed to public pressure and the will of the internet and handed off control of Star Wars to younger, hungrier filmmakers like Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams.
Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney for billions and then donated some of that vast windfall to charity. Then the Star Wars universe roared back to life with The Force Awakens, a blockbuster so successful it damn near single-handedly kept the entire American economy afloat last year. Star Wars was suddenly the hottest property in pop culture again, with the possible exception of its Marvel stablemates, also at Disney. The public worshipped the first Star Wars sequel since 1983’s Return Of The Jedi and is now panting in anticipation of The Force Awakens sequels and spin-offs.
Lucas should be overjoyed, yet he cuts an unmistakably melancholy, King Lear presence these days. He famously compared Disney’s treatment of him and his intellectual property to white slavery, then had to walk those comments back when they came off as egregious even by the standards of a rich old white man whose self-pity matches his fortune and cultural impact.
When Disney bought Star Wars from George Lucas, the company then exercised its right to more or less cut the creator of the Star Wars universe out of the creative process. It paid an enormous sum for the right to ignore George Lucas, and got its money’s worth on that front. Disney wanted to make movies that looked and felt and more importantly, connected with audiences the way Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back did. They figured out somewhere along the line that the key to making movies like the ones George Lucas made as a young man was to keep the current George Lucas as far away from the action as humanly possible. This strategy succeeded in every conceivable sense: Star Wars: The Force Awakens had so little to do with Lucas that its extraordinary success likely filled Lucas with ambivalence.
If Lucas was largely absent from The Force Awakens during its production, his smudgy fingerprints are all over another film from last year that didn’t do quite as well as Star Wars. In fact, it’s one of the biggest animated bombs of all time. That film is the exceedingly peculiar Strange Magic, which Lucas had poignantly and sadly been trying to get made for the past decade and a half. The film’s protracted development helps explain why it feels so jarringly off, but even if it had been released in 2001, it still would have felt like a warmed-over Shrek rehash filled with songs even more annoying than Shrek’s “All Star.”
When Lucas brought Star Wars to Disney, he also brought the troubled, long-in-gestation production, the same way a cat will bring the rotting corpse of a mouse it killed to its owner as a misguided act of affection, and was received with roughly the same level of appreciation/mortification. But if Disney wanted Star Wars, and it did, it unfortunately had to take Strange Magic along with it.
As envisioned by Lucas, who has the sole story credit, in addition to being an executive producer, Strange Magic is a mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beauty And The Beast, Star Wars, Happy Feet, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal, all set to painfully bland covers of top radio hits from the past 60 years. When a movie is inspired by everything, as Strange Magic seems to be, it ends up feeling inspired by nothing. Strange Magic has the curious quality of being at once maddeningly derivative and almost charmingly clueless as to how any of its weird, jagged components are supposed to fit together.
The film’s sappy sincerity and sentimentality, as well as the clumsiness of its storytelling, are all hallmarks of Lucas. Strange Magic is so shameless in foregrounding its message that a narrator literally delivers the film’s message—“Everybody deserves to be loved”—just before the title credit. The Fairy King, who takes the entire film to figure out that simple message, was visually modeled after Lucas, and the character’s cluelessness renders the in-joke more cutting than likely intended.
Alan Cumming voices an unlikely candidate for love, a Bog King who rules over a dark forest filled with infinite darkness and hideously ugly creatures who hate music and joy because they cannot get over the rejections and indignities of the past. They’re like men’s rights activists, but slightly more appealing.
On the other side of the lightness/darkness divide lie a pair of fairy princesses who frolic about in a bright, shiny forest that suggests either leftover backgrounds from Avatar or an uncharacteristically kinetic screensaver. In this sunnier world, fairy princess Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is betrothed to Roland (Sam Palladio), a handsome blonde cad she soon spies making out with someone else. Marianne is tough and resourceful, grounded and resilient; her sister, Dawn, is her temperamental opposite, as evidenced by her sunny name. Dawn is hopelessly boy-crazy even without being subjected to a magical love potion that is the film’s strongest connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, its sort-of source material.
Strange Magic seems awfully proud of itself for bucking convention by making the handsome fairy-tale prince a creep unworthy of an ass-kicking princess who isn’t waiting for Prince Charming to save her. But by this point this reverse fairy-tale mythology is nearly as established and groaningly over-familiar as the clichés it sets out to correct. A story about a beast who remains a beast even after falling in love with a beauty could only be novel in a world without Shrek and its 87 sequels and spin-offs.
While we’re referencing like-minded movies, Strange Magic’s Prince Not-So-Charming and sister aspect similarly recall Frozen, only terrible. Where Frozen featured original songs that quickly began to feel as if they’d always existed, Strange Magic features bland covers of popular favorites from both contemporary radio and oldies stations that resemble the Kidz Bop series of sound-alike almost-music.
Lucas deserves credit for forever changing the way music in film is used through the wall-to-wall soundtrack in American Graffiti. That movie derived much of its startling emotional power from an intense emotional connection to the music of the past. It piggybacked on the extraordinary affection audiences had for the songs of the early 1960s, revolutionizing future soundtracks. American Graffiti is a movie people love, full of songs they love.
Strange Magic, in sharp contrast, presents beloved songs in such awful versions that it could make the listener lose affection for the songs they love. Instead of benefiting from the audience’s enduring fondness for songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” the film kicks off a desire to protect these songs from being hopelessly bungled in the worst possible context. I love musicals and never have difficulty accepting that in this particular genre sometimes people just spontaneously break out into song and dance. But in the world of Strange Magic, it never stops being bizarre and jarring and wrong for Bog Kings and Fairy Princesses and various other fantastical creatures to open their mouths and crank out a Kelly Clarkson song. George Lucas personally selected the covers here, so presumably he’s the man who thought it would be funny to have fantastical monsters sing a Black Eyed Peas anthem a cappella.
Strange Magic is a harrowing reminder that while Lucas helped give us Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and even Apocalypse Now, he also gave us Jar Jar Binks, Howard The Duck as a movie star, Red Tails, and Radioland Murders. When Lucas’ ideas work, they have the power to change film and pop culture and ignite the imagination. And when his ideas do not work, the result can be embarrassing. Touchstone dutifully released the film to over 3,000 theaters, far more of a launch than anything other than its connection to Lucas merited. It scored the lowest opening weekend for an animated film that opened on that many screens.
This movie is a moving museum of Lucas’ worst instincts, weakest characters, and most unpalatable ideas. Lucas recently tried to set up a museum of a less metaphorical variety in The A.V. Club’s hometown of Chicago. He gave up on the Lucas Museum Of Narrative Art in the city after confrontations with a nonprofit group called Friends Of The Parks who were not at all friendly to Lucas’ plans to build on the city’s lakefront. (He is now reportedly trying to build the museum in California.) It was yet another embarrassment that unwittingly summarizes both Lucas’ role in the ongoing Star Wars universe and his shepherding of Strange Magic over a period of decades. Lucas, the master storyteller with the multi-billion dollar brain, had something he thought had tremendous value and importance, something that could inspire whole generations. And again, Lucas’ attempted gift was met with a hard pass despite the incredible success of his earlier creations.
Lucas has described Strange Magic as his attempt to make Star Wars “for 12-year-old girls.” That’s not only sexist, but condescending, as it assumes that female audiences will be immediately entranced by the film’s pandering fairy-tale start-up kit. It also wrongly suggests that only boys appreciated Star Wars, while the movie series’ tremendous success rate (and the ensuing success of The Force Awakens, the first in the series with a female protagonist) clearly indicates otherwise.
Poor King George. Even when he makes billions and he gives away billions, he still has a way of coming off as a loser.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco
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