I love Strange Magic so much! It’s so different - a jukebox musical heavily laden with singing and fairy fantasy calendar visuals. The commitment to this artistic vision is breathtaking, and risk taking. There’s just nothing else like it.
I mean, if you actually saw some of the scant promotion for Strange Magic, you might have noticed the fantasy calendar visuals. But nothing could prepare you for the amount of singing in the film because it’s so far outside what you could reasonably expect. Apparently the film makers even considered making it sung through entirely.
(I’m kind of hoping that unnamed Lin-Manuel Miranda Walt Disney Animation Studio feature will do this, but of course with original music/lyrics rather than jukebox remixes.)
The risk of trying something way out there is that people might reject it. That’s pretty much what has happened with Strange Magic and I think that’s a shame. But if you give the movie a chance, it’s a really trippy fairy fantasy that has the whimsical dreamy feeling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and grounds it in compelling characters with solid motivations.
The use of singing produces, at times, a weird surreal effect because it’s sometimes unclear whether the characters are really singing, or if it’s oblivious “musical” singing. Since these characters are fairies rather than humans, it’s entirely plausible for them to actually go around actually singing all the time. But then it’s weird when the Bog King says “At least you’re not singing”, and then a minute later he’s joining in the song he seemed to initially to shun. This confusing ambiguity accentuates the fuzzy transition between sword fighting and dancing together.
The duet/duel itself is something different. It reflects feelings that are similar to things like Esmeralda’s fight with Phoebus, or Megamind’s banter with Metroman (or, I’ll grudgingly admit, Roxanne…Metromind forever!). But in the form of a singing duet? I really can’t think of any precedent.
Later, it gets sublimely surreal when the movie eases into the titular duet of “Strange Magic”. The movie seems to transition into true “musical” singing, where singing is exposing Marianne and Bog’s inner thoughts rather than them actually singing. But it’s ambiguous, in a way that accentuates the surreal change of pacing and visual attitude (it literally shows the previously scary things of the dark forest in a new light).
This second duet is leisurely and dreamy, evoking the ethereal flight of Lois Lane and Superman. Oh, did I mention that there is a lot of singing in Strange Magic? Well, there is. And that’s how we’re able to enjoy three very different feeling romancing duets between the protags.
The third one is at the end, capping the movie off with an unabashedly trippy introduction of a kaleidescope effect. Because of course! I mean, why not just go all out, and go out with a bang?
Fundamentally though, Strange Magic is a movie about a love potion. Crazy hijinks ensue, but by the end of the night everyone lives happily ever after. But George Lucas fills in the big factor that was missing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - characters that we actually care about. There’s no shortcut to that, so the bulk of the movie builds up the characters and their relationships so we love them and love seeing them bounce off each other. (Even the villain, who we love to see get put in his place.)
Each character has a core motivation that makes it easy to root for (or against) them. Marianne loves her sister Dawn. Dawn is boy crazy. Dawn’s best friend Sunny is hopelessly in love her. Roland wants an army, and is only interested in marrying Marianne so he can get that. Bog hates love and the chaos it causes. Bog’s mother wants him to fall in love. And so on.
Strange Magic is not a movie where tension is driven by a real sense of danger. You know everything’s going to work out in the end. The tension is driven by magic and love - or really, the magic of love. So, building up the characters and showing by their actions what they care about, we get a real connection with them and feel for them. There’s particularly an interesting disconnect between what Bog says about himself and the proof of his every action and instinctive expression. He sings that he’s “evil”, but his actions betray someone who is instinctively caring even to strangers he finds annoying.
The movie has been billed as a “Beauty and the Beast” story where the beast doesn’t change. But honestly, that’s more just a hook and a recurring vibe. Still, it’s fun seeing how Strange Magic deviates from Beauty and the Beast:
1) Learning to love: Strange Magic doesn’t confuse things by making either protag need to learn to love. They’re both had their heart broken, but they’re both basically doing okay single. Ironically, the fact that they both hate love at this point in their lives is one of the things that draws them together.
2) Transformation: There is a transformation, actually, but it takes place well before the protags even meet. Marianne starts off pretty much the sort of princess who is really not Bog’s type. She only unwittingly transforms herself into the sort of person that would catch Bog’s heart after her fiance breaks her heart. This transformation takes place over some time, since she trains herself into a strong sword fighter against a virtual knight to vent her frustrations.
Speaking of that virtual knight, it’s a fun callback to Sleeping Beauty. In Sleeping Beauty, Briar Rose dances with a virtual prince that’s made up of her woodland creature friends. Then, she dances with her Phillip while singing a duet. In Strange Love, Marianne learns how to sword fight dueling with a virtual knight made up of her tiny fairy spirit friends. Later, she’ll sword fight with Bog in a fight that becomes more like a dance, singing what becomes a duet.
3) Imprisonment: The “beast” does imprison Marianne’s sister Dawn, but Marianne doesn’t offer to take her place. The real prison is a result of the love potion, not the physical cell Dawn’s held in. Bog and Marianne try to free Dawn together.
4) Beauty: Neither protag is physically hideous nor is either transformed to become “beautiful”. This helps to not confuse the message about how it is to fall in love with someone’s mind or spirit rather than one’s appearances. Bog mistakenly deduced that he was too hideous to love, but that turned out to be a misinterpretation. And while Marianne isn’t physically his ideal type, neither does he consider her ugly.
Ultimately, there are so many deviations for Beauty and the Beast that it’s really more of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some Beauty and the Beast ideas sprinkled in, than a BatB story.
So how does it compare to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Well, I feel that A Midsummer Night’s Dream lacks characters that we really care about. Puck’s silly love dusting and magic produces silly pairings for comedic shock value, but little else because I don’t think we’re given much reason to care about what happens to the characters.
In contrast, Strange Magic concentrates almost entirely upon just one usage of the love potion. By devoting so much attention to this one usage, and making it clear how much chaos and stress is produced just from that one love dusting alone, the movie successfully amplifies the impact of the ridiculous love dusting chaos produced by the Imp.
So, the story spends a lot of time building up the relationship of Marianne and her sister Dawn. It takes time to really show us how much they care for each other. It’s essential to the story because it makes it natural for Marianne and Bog to go from fighting to loving. It seems Marianne really did enjoy their fight, but her higher priority is clearly her sister. It’s only as it becomes clear Marianne and Bog are on the same side when it comes to curing her sister that it becomes more than just a spark of natural chemistry.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is framed within a lover’s tiff between a husband and wife, but we don’t have any emotional reason to care about them. The lover’s tiff in Strange Magic takes place near the end, after we have grown to care about the characters and their relationship. As they note in Spinal Tap, such a fine line between stupid and clever.
Oh, and one final random thought - I really appreciate how the central romance in Strange Magic is between two characters who aren’t experiencing their first love. They both have enough life experience feeling the crushing pain of heartbreak that they treat Dawn with tender care, at least. The result is that both characters are jaded and have made mistakes, like Megara from Hercules. But neither is broken out of a funk by the adorkable naivete of a manic pixie dream girl/guy. Rather, they just happen to feel a lot in common because of where they’ve been and where they are in their lives
I really appreciate that defiance of trope, and it’s another thing that makes Strange Magic so different.