It's hard to imagine that George Lucas has cared much about the fan revolt he's faced since '97 or so, the year he thumbed CGI Colorforms all over the original Star Wars movies. But there's one criticism that seems to have stung him: that Lucas, a good Marin County liberal, populated his headachy space movies with very earthly — and downright shameful — ethnic stereotypes.
That's the only complaint that this fiercely independent filmmaker seems to have blinked at. Almost everything that stank in The Phantom Menace still stank in Revenge of the Sith, but Jar Jar was mostly long ago/far away, as were those l-and-r-botching Trade Federation schemers and that highly schnozzed Jewish junk-shop proprietor. Twenty years earlier, in Raiders of the Lost Ark story conferences with Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg, Lucas described the enemies of Indiana Jones as “Third-World local sleazos. Whether they're Mexicans or Arabs or whatever.”
Maybe in the '90s he finally grew past the old-Hollywood assumption — common in those serials he grew up loving — that the white-dude hero is the norm from which all villainy deviates. Now he even seems to be trying to make amends. First he produced Redtails, that well-intentioned but dramatically stiff take on the Tuskegee airmen — the first Lucas film not to have a white dude or duck as its POV protagonist. And now comes the fascinating, messy, mostly enjoyable animated princess musical Strange Magic, sneaking into theaters — like Redtails before it — as a January release that critics won't even pretend to take seriously. That's understandable: This thing looks like Lucas doing Disney just as Disney is prepping to do Lucas, and it's a pop-jukebox musical, with the characters singing Elvis and Lady Gaga and ELO. It is, admittedly, unpromising.
It's also the best Lucas film in 25 years: funny, idiosyncratic, hippy-dippy, packed with creatures and visions worth beholding. There's a head-shop beauty to its enchanted forest, and a full-fledged trip-along sequence in the celebratory climax, and its big sword fight — fairy princess versus Alan Cumming's wicked bug-man — beats Anakin vs. Obi-Wan, even though the duelists are singing. The movie rushes too much, and it doesn't do enough to make you care about its world, but it's never bad, or cloying in that Shrek way, and it's often daring. In the end, it's not the usual violent mayhem that saves the day. It's love, it's singing, it's open hearts and minds, and it peaks with the heroine and the villain flitting about the forest together, singing an ELO hit, falling in love with each other after first bonding over how much they both think they hate love. Strange Magic has true fairy weirdness all through it.
As in Willow or the Ewok movies, Strange Magic offers a good-versus-evil pastoral, this time pitting fairies versus the froglike, love-hating denizens of the “Dark Forest.” That “Dark,” at first, seems the usual Tolkien-style swipe at the nonwhite world: The heroes, here, are a master race of gorgeous, model-like white fairies ruled by a plump and bearded Lucas lookalike. (Luke-alike?) One princess, Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), has bad luck with her betrothed, a hammy hunk of a prince. That inspires Marianne to renounce love and give herself an emo-warrior makeover that, seriously, is divine: bracers from leaves; a dress from flame-orange flower petals. Her friends catapult berries from a branch at her, for her to slice in half as sword practice.
These fairies are attended by comedy sidekick elves, all brown-skinned and Troll-doll haired. One of these, a chap named Sonny (Elijah Kelley), has to do some 'fraidy-cat shtick, but he eventually becomes one of the film's heroes. And once Strange Magic dashes its light-versus-dark story to the rocks and instead becomes a goof on A Midsummer Night's Dream-style romantic mixups, Sonny gets to be a Pucklike figure, a character type with no precedent in Lucas.
But that master-race setup: I admit, I wondered out loud at first whether they even had meetings at Lucasfilm. Surely someone in the production must have noticed the film's disquieting race/caste system! Turns out I had too little faith: Once the love potions get uncorked, all propriety is upended. Better still: When the corks go back in, the old order isn't restored. The princesses wind up betrothed, happily, outside of their class, and it's left to Old Man Lucas himself to speak the moral: “Never judge someone by how he or she looks.” Then, to drive home how this lesson isn't always as easy as it should be, especially for aging boomers, the Lucas character covers his face so he doesn't have to look at all the Others his daughters want to marry. Chalk one up for the local sleazos.