Is George Lucas on an apology tour for all that racial stereotyping in Temple of Doom and the Star Wars prequels? 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's 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.