It’s been more than a decade since the phrase “from the mind of George Lucas” triggered an anticipatory shiver rather than a feeling of sinking dread. One misfire after another has burned up all of the goodwill audiences once had for the science-fiction icon, whose groundbreaking special-effects house Industrial Light and Magic assembled talented technicians like Harrison Ellenshaw, Ben Burtt, and John Dykstra under one roof and put them to work building a speculative world so rich and dense it seemed like it was carved directly out of childhood imaginations.
Gary Rydstrom was a part of that magic as well. Since beginning his career at ILM, he’s amassed a roster of accolades (including, so far, seven Oscars and 17 nominations) for excellence in movie sound design, and he’s earned every one of them: Anyone who remembers the PTSD-inducing siege on Omaha Beach in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan has experienced Rydstrom’s wizardry. So it makes sense that, after years of loyal service, Lucasfilm has finally rewarded their audio maestro with a chance to direct a feature. Whether the end result will cause audiences to embrace Lucas again, however, is debatable.
A jukebox musical roughly based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (although Lucas gives himself the sole story credit), Strange Magic follows the romantic entanglements of a group of enchanted beings occupying both sides of a fantasy land divided, DMZ-style, between the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest. Butterfly-winged Marianne (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) is betrothed to Roland (Sam Palladio), but after he two-times her, she renounces love—a sharp contrast to her flirtatious sister Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull), who somehow doesn’t notice the adoration of poor, dumpy gnome Sunny (Elijah Kelley). When Sunny entreats the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) to brew a love potion so he and Roland can win the objects of their affection, all hell breaks loose. All these shenanigans are intermittently interrupted with earnestly sung renditions of love-themed pop songs like “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
ILM is still home to some of the most skilled technicians working in film, and the CGI in this movie is a staggering, synesthetic delight. Authentic and gorgeous textures—moist, greasy, crumbly, dry, diaphanous, chalky, iridescent—abound on every surface. Forget 3D: If ever a film suffered from the inability to literally reach out and touch the screen, it’s this one.
But texture isn’t what makes a movie work. And everything that does—character, plot, dialogue, direction—goes neglected. (It’s also disconcerting that a film intended to appeal to little girls is so focused on matrimony at any cost, even if it’s with a jerk; otherwise, the script repeatedly and explicitly threatens, you’ll end up “sad and alone.”) Strange Magic does its best, but in the end it only reinforces how ILM is more concerned with the surface sheen of craft than the deep beauty of art. How ironic that a movie proclaiming to be all about love ends up having no heart.