This film was slammed pretty hard by the critics, and I went into it warily. Being a visual artist and writer myself, I am a huge fan of quality animation, but I am well aware that a lot of it is crap, too. I was pleasantly surprised by Strange Magic, and the more I watched the more I realized that not only is it a beautiful and lushly-realized, nuanced story with some great messages…it’s actually kind of revolutionary as far as feature animated films. I suspect that the critics hated it because they didn’t GET IT. Probably because they are mostly men. And that’s not a slam on men…it’s an acknowledgement that men don’t have the perspective of growing up as young women.
Basically, it’s a Feminist Fairy Rock Opera that explores the complexities of Love. It’s a Coming-of-Age story about young women that doesn’t romanticize romance, but portrays the experience of learning to navigate romantic relationships in a way that was pretty darn familiar to me, as a woman. It portrays the challenges of girls struggling to establish their independence in a world dominated by men who want to control, manipulate and protect them, and it does so with insight and compassion.
One thing I saw a lot of critics mention was that there was too much music. Now, I’ll admit that I find some animated films where folks start bursting into song a bit annoying. But this is a musical. If you’re not aware, musicals are insanely popular with young people, and for good reason. If you don’t like musicals, steer clear (and if you're a critic who criticizes musicals for having music, you're a pretty lame film critic, IMHO). But if you can appreciate the art of using relevant pop music to express character and advance plot, Strange Magic ROCKS at this. The musical selection is eclectic, recasting beloved songs from such popular artists as The Four Tops, Bob Marley, Beyonce, Dionne Warwick, Queen, Heart, ELO and the Troggs, to name a few. The arrangements are great, and they are integrated into the film quite skillfully, evoking relevant emotions and often, charming humor. It's self aware enough to even acknowledge that breaking into song is silly (and sometimes annoying).
Now, this is a story about Fairy Princesses falling in love. But it’s not your average, sugar-coated Disney tale (don’t be fooled by the saccharine setup…stick with it!). There is a Handsome Prince (who is not actually a Prince…not yet, anyway. He has to marry the princess first to achieve that goal). It’s quickly established that despite this guy’s good looks and popularity, his actions mark him as a manipulative, selfish bully who’s only after the crown. The rest of the story follows MaryAnn’s journey after she discovers his true nature and processes her first major heartbreak.
Her initial response is to swear off love. Former goth girls will relate to the impulse to harden our hearts and toughen up. She decides she doesn’t need a man, and she focuses her energy on becoming her own protector. One scene references the classic scene in Star Wars of Luke Skywalker honing his lightsaber skills with the training drone. Some folks found this annoying but f them. One of the reasons George Lucas made this film is because he has daughters and wanted to make a “Star Wars for Girls”.
Critics bashed the fact that the King (and father of the girls) looks like Lucas – an obvious vanity cameo, right? But the King is kind of a boob. He’s a clueless, overprotective single Dad whose heart is in the right place, but is admittedly ill-equipped to guide his girls. Like a LOT of dads. I applaud Lucas for portraying the Father’s Dilemma of wanting to protect his adolescent girls with sensitivity and self-depreciating humor, as opposed to the traditional notion, which is to pull out the shotgun when the predatory boys come sniffing around.
The film also features an over-involved, inept matchmaker of a Mother who is determined to make sure her boy (who happens to be the Bad Guy) finds love, despite his bitter rejection of the “L” Word. Both families seem to be missing one parent, a factor that is not insignificant.
The interaction between parents and their willful children is handled beautifully – the children love their parents, and understand that they are trying to look out for them, however annoying they might be. They don’t resort to destructive parent-hating rebellion, yet still manage to exert their independence.
So – the Dad’s a boob and the handsome boy is a jerk. Sounds pretty anti-male, right? Nope. While there are male characters that represent the dangerous, confusing and frustrating interactions between men and women, there are other male characters that are awesome. They just happen not to be the ones who are handsome, popular and/or powerful (or white). They are flawed, but brave, loving, respectful, and perhaps most important of all, willing to take the risk of vulnerability.
The plot is fairly complex and moves pretty darn fast in places. Some folks may think it’s too advanced for kids, but I think our kids are up to the challenge. You know how kids watch these things over and over again…if they miss something the first time around, repeated viewings will clarify things. It did for me, with the added benefit of spotting little details that enhance the story.
I also totally dug the Sugarplum Fairy character. Though the wisest and most magically powerful of them all, she has been imprisoned for years and her frustration at this is hilariously palpable, yet there is also a suggestion that her incarceration is all part of a larger plan to teach some valuable lessons. She’s an enchanting representation of the elemental goddess figure, at once powerful and vulnerable, helpful and dangerous, loving yet mischievous. And ultimately, the secret of her Love Potion is the most profound (and relevant in this day and age) lesson of all.
Which brings me to some other refreshing elements. The Love Potion brings up issues which are relevant in our world of Gamergate-style male entitlement and date rape drugs. While not explicitly delving into these topics, it does depict a young woman delirious with potion-induced infatuation, and an older male being honorable and NOT taking advantage of her. It also explores the phenomenon of the “friendzone” with insight and sensitivity.
In one scene that touches on the confusing mixed messages we send our young women, the King Dad urges his older daughter to get back on the dating horse after a traumatic heartbreak so she can find a man to love and protect her. A moment later he worriedly complains about how his younger, boy-crazy daughter is too flirty. The older daughter’s response is a justified gnashing of teeth that the King seems oblivious to, but is all too familiar to most of us female types.
It also champions the notion that even “ugly”, “unpopular” people can be lovable. The trope of the Misunderstood Bad Guy is quite beautifully handled, and the development of the relationship between the Bog King and MaryAnn results in some Falling In Love scenes that I found quite enchanting.
Ultimately, I found much to love about this film, and I wrote this because I don’t want it to pass into obscurity because of the petty complaints of clueless critics.
Because here’s the thing – girls DO need and deserve their own Star Wars -not that Star Wars doesn’t work for girls as well as boys. But I think they do need to see female characters embarking on their own Heroes’ Journey. This film acknowledges that young girls ARE innocent and dumb and DO need to be protected…but they also need to be respected and allowed to learn the (sometimes harsh) lessons of life. A girl’s path to maturity is often filled with different dangers and challenges than boys face, but they can learn to navigate this dangerous world, and be heroes themselves.
That’s an empowering and progressive message I think our young women AND young men need to hear, and Strange Magic manages to tell this story in a way that’s appealing to kids and adults, boys and girls.