‘Strange Magic’: Quirky animated tale

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How strong is the George Lucas brand? Once upon a time, back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was venerated as a cinematic deity. He had created the space opera, “Star Wars,” which broke the record, since surpassed, as the biggest grossing film in film history. He followed up by creating another iconic franchise, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lucas languished in creative semi-retirement for 22 years, He then returned with his “Star Wars” prequels. The films were plagued by embarrassingly rotten narrative, tone-deaf dialogue, and the racist stereotype of Jar Jar Binks. Lucas’ once auspicious brand was desecrated. Can it ever be restored?

Inspired by Shakespeare’s classic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Lucas’ story idea was whipped into shape by a troika of screenwriters, Gary Rudstrom (who also directed), David Berenbaum, and Irene Mecchi.

“Strange Magic” is the third animated film produced by Lucasfilm, following “Twice Upon A Time”, and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Although the film it dominated by its musical component, the filmmakers jettisoned their original notion of having the entire dialogue sung.

Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood) is the spunky daughter of the Fairy King (Alfred Molina) and is his heir. She is vaguely attractive. However, her looks are clearly eclipsed by those of her preternaturally handsome fiancée, Roland (Sam Palladio). Does the narcissistic Roland actually love Marianne or does he simply lust over the prospect of sharing the power that she will eventually yield?

On their wedding day, Marianne has a rude awakening. She espies Roland in the forest, making out with a random female. Shocked and appalled, Marianne cancels the wedding. She forswears that she will never succumb to the stirrings of the heart. Her sentiments are expressed by the tune, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

Years pass. Marianne may have closed down her heart, but her younger sister, Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull) is boy crazy. She seems oblivious to the fact that Sunny (Elijah Kelley), a dark skinned dwarf, is smitten with her.

The Spring Ball is about to take place and Dawn is excited by the prospect of meeting a beau. By contrast, Marianne is still embittered. She doesn’t even want to even attend the event. Only the supplications of her father induce her to make a perfunctory appearance.

Guess who decides to show up? Yes-it’s Roland purporting to be contrite and imploring forgiveness. He and Marianne engage in dueling versions of “C’mon Marianne” and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Clearly, Roland still wants to wear the royal crown and sit on the throne. Despite his good looks, Marianne now seems refractory to his putative charms.

What is Roland’s solution? He dispatches Sunny to the Dark Forest to seek out the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth). She is capable of making a love potion that will win the affections of Dawn and Marianne. However, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, the Sugar Plum Fairy has been imprisoned by the Bog King (Alan Cummings).

The Bog King is hideous to behold. In terms of appearance, he is the antithesis of pretty boy, Roland. Unfortunately, the Bog King also has a nasty temperament to complement his ugly looks. The efforts of his mother, Griselda (Maya Rudolph), to find a bride for the Bog King are all for naught.

How will Sunny’s unrequited love for Dawn and Roland’s scheme to put Marianne under his spell pan out?  Mirroring Shakespeare’s classic romantic mix-up, “Strange Magic” takes the standard set up for a fairy tale and turns it upside down, filling it with plenty of confusion. There is an object lesson here that looks aren’t the most important component of a loving relationship.

This film is far too scary for young children. However, for school agers and older, the heterodox storyline and unusual animation style of “Strange Magic” boasts a quirkily engaging quality.

*** PG (for some action and scary images) 99 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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‘Love Is Strange’: So is MPAA rating system

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For 21st Century Media

“Love Is Strange” is an often touching depiction of the lives of two elderly gay men.
Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are a devoted same sex couple, who have been together for thirty-nine years. Ben is an artist and George teaches choir at a local Roman Catholic boy’s school. The two share a comfortable, tastefully-appointed Manhattan apartment.
When New York legalizes gay marriages, Ben and George eagerly take advantage of the new legislation and get hitched. Following the ceremony, we see them back in their apartment, surrounded by family and friends, belting out Broadway show tunes. Everything seems hunky dory.
George is summoned to the office of his principal. There, George is advised that some unidentified archdiocesan official has issued a fiat to fire him. George is flabbergasted by the news. George points out that he has never hidden the fact that he is gay and lives with another man. These protestations are in vain.
With the loss of George’s income, the couple can no longer afford to keep their home. They are unable to find a place, where they can live together. They seek temporary lodgings. The couple is offered the opportunity to move into a home of one of Ben’s relatives, where they could live together. However, that would mean living in Poughkeepsie (shudders). This option is unthinkable to them. So, after decades together, the senescent lovebirds are forced to live apart.
Ben moves to the Brooklyn loft apartment occupied by his nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his family. This includes Elliot’s novelist wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei) and adolescent son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Ben’s presence soon proves discomfiting. Kate is distracted by Ben’s presence, which disrupts her writing regimen. Joey is annoyed by the fact that he now has to share his room with an interloper, who is sharing his bunk bed. Kate and Joey resent the loss of the cherished privacy to which they had grown accustomed.
Meanwhile, George moves downstairs to the apartment of a pair of young gay policemen, Ted (Cheyenne Jackson) and Roberto (Manny Perez). He couch surfs there. George assures them that it will only be for a month, two at the most. It doesn’t take long before George’s presence becomes an unwelcome irritant.
Our Society has made enormous strides with regard to becoming more tolerant of homosexuality. Lamentably, homophobia sometimes still rears its ugly head. Most churches remain staunchly opposed to the gay lifestyle and vociferously condemn it. In an effort to justify their prejudice, many faith leaders quote scriptural passages.
I felt compassion for the plight of the two co-protagonists. Not only they had to battle with contemporary homophobia, but in prior decades, during which it was far worse. However, I struggled to accept their failure to anticipate the knee-jerk homophobic response of the Roman Catholic church when they go married. By no means do I condone this intemperate reaction. I thought that the archdiocesan decision to fire George for getting married to a man was wrong. He is an otherwise qualified employee, who has not done anything illegal.
While the church’s action was wrong, wasn’t it totally predictable? Somehow, the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias seems to suggest that the co-protagonists were blindsided by the church’s decision. I struggled with this dramatic conceit. George works at a Roman Catholic boy’s school. Wouldn’t he be aware of the church’s publically stated stance in opposition to homosexuality? Shouldn’t he have anticipated their reaction to his same sex marriage?
For that matter, shouldn’t Ben and George have recognized that their abrupt intrusion into the homes of other people would constitute an imposition? What is the basis for their belief that their economic circumstances will change and enable them to find lodgings together? Should Ben’s family and the gay downstairs neighbors be expected to accommodate the two displaced men in cramped circumstances indefinitely?
Admittedly, I have reservations about certain plot contrivances in “Love Is Strange.” Nevertheless, I am appalled by the action of the MPAA in giving an R rating to this innocuous film. The MPAA is a trade organization, which has formulated a set of categories. These range from the ultra-mild G (for General Audiences and includes “nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children”) all the way to the harshest NC-17 (“Clearly adult. Children are not admitted”). An R rating is one level down from the dreaded NC-17. It indicates that a film has material, which is unsuitable for those under 17, but allows them to see it if they are accompanied by an adult.
To provide a frame of reference, R was attached to films like the grisly “Saw” series and the violence filled, sexually graphic “Sin City” and its sequel. Despite its staggering body count, Sylvester Stallone’s recent macho bloodbath. “The Expendables 3” was accorded a mere NC-17.
“Love Is Strange” contains a chaste peck on the cheek and a fully clothed embrace, both of which involve two men. There is absolutely no violence anywhere in the film. So-what accounts for the R rating? According to the MPAA, “Love Is Strange” received its R rating for the utterances of a few forbidden words. Of course, this is absurd.
**1/2 R (for language) 94 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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