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'Strange Magic' Meets the Press

George Lucas talks to reporters as his second animated feature, 'Strange Magic' hits U.S. theatres.

'Strange Magic' © & TM 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

George Lucas has been thinking about Strange Magic for sixteen years. While he was directing the Star Wars prequels, while he was getting ready to sell Lucasfilm to Disney, he was thinking about Strange Magic.

Now he’s thinking about what people will think about Strange Magic. The CGI good-vs.-evil fairy tale, the second Lucasfilm-animated movie (after Rango) opens January 23. A week prior, Emperor Palp—oops, I mean George himself enters a Manhattan hotel conference room to field questions from lowly online reporters, your humble correspondent included. (Before the games begin we’re admonished: no Star Wars questions, please.)

Did I mention Strange Magic is a musical? Not your ordinary animated feature, spiked with a handful of original songs performed by the characters along the way—it’s practically a full-blown opera.

“Originally I wanted it to be all music, but everyone beat on me real hard and said ‘you can’t do this,” George admits.  (Why he didn’t employ The Force to get his way—“no, you’ll do it my way;” “yes, we’ll do it your way”—I’ll never know.), Instead, the cast performs over 30 classic rock tunes (from “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” and oh yes, “Strange Magic”), interspersed with plot-conveying dialog.

Was it tricky finding the perfect song to match a particular scene’s emotional content—was it like solving a jigsaw puzzle, I ask the man who helped changed the direction of American filmmaking in the 1970’s.

“It was awful. It was more like a Rubik’s Cube than a jigsaw puzzle. When I went through it I had a million songs and I had to narrow it down; as the years went on we kept narrowing it down. When we started doing storyboards and putting things together Steve [Gizicki, music supervisor] and [composer Marius De] Vries came in. We recorded a lot of music that didn’t end up being in the movie: when you pull one song out you have to pull out another and then another. It would not stop and it was very hard to actually make it connect.”

Later on, in a separate cast and crew session I ask De Vries “were there any parts of the movie you were dying to score, but George said “we’re putting a song in here?” The composer answers with a succinct “no,” waits a beat then adds “I wanted there to be as little score as possible. The idea was to tell the story through song and the score is just to [fill the gaps inbetween].”

Director Gary Rydstrom takes issue with De Vries’ response. “Marius is being too nice about it. The score is an important part of the movie. There’s a scene where [villain Bog King, voiced by Alan Cumming] and [warrior fairy] Marianne [Evan Rachel Wood] come together and their backstories come out. The love is starting to percolate and it’s a very emotional scene. The score Marius wrote for that is gorgeous. A few minutes into the orchestra playing that cue [at the recording session] I’m crying, because the music was so beautiful and what it was doing for the movie was so beautiful. I didn’t let anyone see me at the time but I’ll admit it now.”

Back to George: “The story is about the difference between infatuation and real love. Real love is with someone you share the things that will last you the rest of your lives. If you fall in love with a boy band or a football star, it’s not going to last. It’s a story that has been told over and over and over again. It’s like Star Wars, except instead of mythology it’s about fairy tales or the story of the Ugly Duckling. Kids need to understand that’s the way it really works: true love and happiness is not with the pretty boy or girl.

 “Star Wars was a movie for 12 year old boys, so I thought I’d make a movie for 12 year old girls. The boy one worked for everyone from 8 months to 88 years—boys, girls, dogs, whatever. I thought maybe I could do one like this, but make it more female-centric.”

Paraphrasing Cyndi Lauper, George adds “I just wanted to have fun. I’d go out and shoot [the Star Wars prequels] and put this on the shelf for a bit while I had a little group of guys and girls working on it.

“It’s a project I’ve been doing for a long time. When I decided to sell the company I realized I wasn’t completely finished. But I still wanted to retire, I don’t want to wait this out, time is more important than money. I just did it in hope that everyone working on it would follow through and Disney would put up the money to finish it. It was mostly done, so it wasn’t like they had to turn up a whole bunch of money. It turned out extremely well, it’s what I envisioned.

“I know it’s been maybe two years since I sold the company but time moves very slow in animation.”

George leaves the room and it’s time for that cast and crew session. Along with the above-mentioned folks are voice performers Meredith Ann Bull (Marianne’s flighty sister Dawn), Sam Palladio (the self-infatuated “hero” Roland) and Elijah Kelley as Sunny, a diminutive elf with self-confidence issues.

Palladio compares and contrasts voicing an animated character to working in other media: “This was my first time. It was a fantastic freeing experience, compared to working on the stage or on film or TV. Gary and everybody were warm and open to our interpretations and improvisations.

“Coming from a Shakespearian background you stick to the text, you hit your beats and rhythm. It’s fun to see how a little improv of yours gets tweaked and used. When I was recording in Nashville and Gary was in San Francisco, I’d try something that might make him laugh and wonder if it’s coming across. Then you’d hear giggles, which was very reassuring.”

Evan Rachel Wood, the feisty fairy Marianne tells us “I’m huge fan of animated films—I’m a Disney fanatic. I thought Marianne was a great role model for girls. I got to sing too, which is my first love and my childhood dream was realized when I got to be a fairy,” to which Palladio interjects “mine too.”

“And I’ve always wanted to be a bog king,” Cumming chimes in. “It’s fascinating to see yourself as an animated character. I played a similar part in Spy Kids: someone you think is a baddie, then he develops and realizes who he is. Young adults who grew up with Spy Kids approach me in much more open and honest way because I’m part of their childhood. You get them young and in a few years’ time they’ll be running the studio—I’ll have work lined up for a while.”

And the downside of voicing a cartoon character?  “Animators have [reference] video of us singing—I think it would be good blackmail material.”

Kelley shares his mom’s perspective on seeing her son translated into animation thanks to that reference video: “‘Oh my God he has our nose—I gave you that nose, boy!’”

The classic rock that Strange Music is built around excites everyone involved, from Lucas and De Vries to just about the entire cast, especially Palladio: “The music spans decades. It will expose kids and young adults to genres they may not be familiar with. We go back to Frankie Valli, Elvis songs—it’s a fantastic journey thru the decades. I hadn’t heard much ELO before this and now I’m ‘my God, where was I?’ We’re discovering these new genres, new bands—well, old bands really. There’s so much great stuff out there this movie really links together and will encourage people to go back to their LPs, or go to iTunes to download Elvis’ greatest hits.”

The music is important to Meredith Ann Bull too. “I just want people, whether they’re kids or adults to be taken out of their real life while they’re watching the movie. I think the music is so submersive, I hope people will be engulfed by the experience.”

And what are Wood’s hopes for the film? “If you’ve ever felt different or weird or unlovable, don’t be afraid of those things about yourself and hide them from people.

“The things that make you different and unique are the things that make you the most beautiful and special. If you let those parts of yourself be seen you will attract like people and find love in unexpected places.”

Kelley puts a slightly different spin on Wood’s hopes: “No matter how weird and strange you are, there’s someone equally weird and strange for you to go and do weird and strange things and have a weird and strange life.”

To which Palladio responds “wow, there’s a press release right there.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.