Quick: How many phrases can you think of that start with love? Lots, right? Love is in the air … love is a many-splendored thing … love is patient, love is kind … love is a horrific pit of misery and should be banished forever …
Well, maybe that last one isn't exactly a household phrase in your neighborhood. But it certainly is around the Fairy Kingdom and its gloomy neighbor, the Dark Forest. There, love has seen better days.
I mean, just the name Dark Forest sorta suggests it's not a particularly love-infested place. So maybe it's no great surprise that the hideous Bog King has taken steps to banish all love in his kingdom—including imprisoning the Sugar Plum Fairy—who is the region's only maker of love potions.
The Fairy Kingdom seems like a more comfortable locale for love. And for most of the residents of this sunny, colorful land, maybe it is, love potions or no. But Marianne, crown princess to the kingdom's throne, had her little fairy-heart crushed by a handsome suitor not so long ago, and she's in no rush to find another.
"You'll be a stronger ruler with a king at your side," Marianne's father suggests.
"I'm stronger alone," Marianne insists.
Roland, Marianne's one-time beau, ruined everything by his recent rendezvous with that other pretty young winged thing. But he's not so sure he wants to give Marianne up quite yet. He sure loves thrones and crowns and armies and such, and she's the key to getting all that. The solution? A love potion, of course. Sprinkle a bit of love dust in Marianne's eyes and, as long as Roland's the first person she sees when she opens them again, she'll fall head-over-heels for good ol' tall, blond and deceptive. Roland'll get the kingdom and the girl, too.
But as I mentioned, love potions are problematic these days. Primrose petals are the prime ingredient, and those only grow in the shadows between the bright Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest. And if some guy's able to find a primrose petal (no easy task considering the Bog King has the plants cut down all the time), he'll still have to brave the Forest and find the Sugar Plum Fairy.
It's not like Roland can do all that by himself. He's too, um, big. Yeah, that's it. Big and conspicuous. So he talks a lowly elf named Sunny into the job. See, Sunny's smitten by Marianne's sister, Dawn, and could use a little magic mojo himself.
It's not like it's wrong to magically force someone to fall in love with you … is it?
The moral of Strange Magic seems to be fairly simple: Don't be swept away by how someone or something looks. Sure, the Dark Forest is pretty dark and foresty, filled with all manner of insects and goblins and carnivorous plants. It's admittedly an acquired taste. But there's a beauty in it, too—one that even fairies can see if they set aside their prejudices and preconceptions long enough to give peat a chance.
The Bog King is sort of an extension of his realm, and so the same kind of thing could be said about him. The guy's not much of a looker (at least by our standards), but he winds up nearly sacrificing his life to save others. Marianne also shows herself to have the spirit of an adventurer, diving into the great unknown to rescue her baby sister.
There is magic in these kingdoms. Strange magic. I've already mentioned the fairies and the love potions. Other mystical creatures such as imps and elves abound. And the Sugar Plum Fairy is caught in a prison that seems to shrink her and everything else that's inside.
Eastern spiritual undertones rise to the surface when the Sugar Plum Fairy shows up looking like a Hindu goddess. (And the Indian music that plays whenever she's onscreen heightens the impression.) When two main characters engage in a flying smooch, they circle the air in a swirl, suggesting Taoism's yin-yang symbol.
Romantic love is the foundational theme of Strange Magic. (Never mind that its supposed young target audience still mostly believes those of the opposite sex have cooties.) Characters sigh over and obsess about one another, sometimes putting action to their emotions in the form of smooches.
The movie makes a distinction between real love and the induced "love" fostered by a love potion. But while the former is stronger, we mainly see the latter. A love potion causes Dawn to fall for the Bog King, for instance, prompting her to caress the villain's face and plop down on his lap. Worse, when Boggy-Woggy threatens to pull Dawn's wings off, she seems unfazed. It's all meant to be comical, of course, but given the Bog King's level of hostility and Dawn's obliviously blissful reactions, the scene starts feeling creepy, like we're watching an abusive relationship unfold.
An imp also snags the potion and begins sprinkling it on all manner of woodland creatures, causing a bevy of interspecies pairings. (Some of them kiss.)
"Love potions, of course, have been part of storytelling for centuries, and they're often used in silly or funny ways," writes Hitflix contributor Drew McWeeny. "I'm not saying that's impossible. I am saying, though, that when you make a kids film where the main conversation is whether or not a woman should have agency in choosing who she sleeps with, you're in very weird territory, raising questions that kids, frankly, are not even remotely ready to grapple with."
We see Roland kiss another fairy on the eve of his marriage to Marianne. The Bog King's mother continuously tries to match her son with various grotesque creatures who either use their womanly charms on him (batting their eyes, etc.) or (affectionately) attack him.
A goblin compliments another goblin on how she smells. When the good-smelling goblin admits that it's perfume, the friend asks, "Are you a girl?" "Isn't it obvious?" The goblin huffs. Two male elves accidentally kiss. (Both are grossed out.)
Marianne punches Roland with some frequency. And she engages in a rollicking swordfight with the Bog King. There are other skirmishes between goblins and fairies where people are nearly injured.
The Bog King's castle is destroyed, tumbling to the forest floor below and injuring an occupant. A series of cages are smashed. An imp plummets from a great height (but doesn't get injured). Marianne practices sword fighting, Jedi-style, by fending off and hitting a series of sprite-like creatures (who, it seems, volunteered for the duty). Goblins invade a fairy dance and kidnap a princess, threatening harm to pretty much everyone. Lizards and other animals attack. Carnivorous plants snap and threaten. Marianne's wings get caught in thorns. Roland sings about hanging his head—while he and his henchmen pretend that they've been literally hanged. The next line is about how he wishes he was dead.
Crude or Profane Language
Marianne starts to call someone a "pig son of a …" but is stopped. Someone mispronounces boutonnière as "buttanière."
Drug and Alcohol Content
None. (Unless you count the love potions.)
Other Negative Elements
The moral of the fairy tale is that an ugly exterior can sometimes hide real beauty underneath. And vice versa. That's sweet and certainly beneficial. But it doesn't stop Strange Magic from being a strange movie.
This is a Moulin Rouge!-like musical wherein animated characters belt out rock and pop standards at the drop of a wing—opening their mouths so wide we can count each and every painstakingly rendered tooth in their mouths. It's an upending of the traditional, hackneyed fairy tale ending—only those endings have been upended so often lately that this ending itself feels hackneyed. And it includes oddly psychedelic, kaleidoscopic interludes, which make me wonder whether this flick isn't so much aimed at grade school kids as it is at college students bored out of their minds (and maybe stoned out of their skulls).
And all those complaints come before we dredge up the disturbing implications of the love potions or the twisted spiritual undercurrents or the stray thoughts I now have about what an elf-lizard baby would look like.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Voices of Alan Cumming as The Bog King; Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne; Elijah Kelley as Sunny; Meredith Anne Bull as Dawn; Sam Palladio as Roland; Kristin Chenoweth as The Sugar Plum Fairy; Maya Rudolph as Griselda; Peter Stormare as Thang; Llou Johnson as Pare
Gary Rydstrom ( The Secret World of Arrietty)
January 23, 2015
May 18, 2015