I ended up unintentionally doing a themed movie weekend, and didn’t realize one of the themes until I was thinking about it later. The theme was fantasy romantic comedies with a beauty and the beast theme. Yeah, pretty specific.
The first one was Strange Magic, something I stumbled upon on Disney+. I’d never heard of it, but it was about fairies and was a musical, so I figured why not. It turns out that it’s not Disney or Pixar animation, but rather Lucasfilm. They seem to have turned the people at Industrial Light and Magic who do those animated creatures that get inserted into regular movies loose to do a fully animated movie. Lucas himself was executive producer and has the story credit, so this must have been in the works pre-Disney buyout (and it was released after the buyout, which makes me wonder if Disney maybe buried it and that’s why I never heard of it). It’s an odd little film, kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Much Ado About Nothing meets Beauty and the Beast meets Moulin Rouge. Like Moulin Rouge, it’s a jukebox musical, with existing pop/rock songs instead of original songs. Oddly for a Lucas story, it’s hard to sum up the plot and really give the sense of it. Basically, a fairy princess has to brave the Dark Forest to rescue her sister from the Bog King who’s trying to eradicate love. But it’s not really about that.
The voice cast has a lot of Broadway cred, though Evan Rachel Wood plays the lead, and I don’t know that she’s done Broadway musicals (she is the voice of the mom in the Frozen movies, where she gets to sing), but she’s got serious chops and holds her own with all the Broadway people. As you can imagine when it’s ILM, the animation is gorgeous. The more humanoid fairies have a weird uncanny valley animated quality to them, but everything else is basically photorealistic. I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but I have to say that it made me rather happy. My face hurt from grinning all the way through it, and I’ll probably watch it again. If you want a sense of what this is like, here’s a clip of the heroine confronting the Bog King (Alan Cumming):
Then the next night, since I was in the mood for fantasy rom-coms, I watched Penelope on Amazon Prime (leaving at the end of the month). This is another one I didn’t hear of when it came out, but I had seen it before when it was the recommended viewing for a writing workshop I was taking. This is essentially a gender-flipped beauty and the beast story. A wealthy family has been cursed so that any girls born into the family will have the face of a pig until someone of their own kind loves them as they are, til death they do part. When a girl is finally born into the family after more than a century, the family sets out to find a man from their class who’ll be willing to marry her. Meanwhile, a reporter is scheming to get a photo of her, and he finds a black sheep from a prominent family who’s down enough on his luck to be bribed to present himself as a suitor. But Penelope has other ideas about her own fate and is tired of being locked away.
Actually, I’m not entirely sure I’d call it a full-on romance, as the main plot is more about Penelope figuring things out for herself, and she’s only with the guy a bit at the beginning and end, but it’s still romantic. It’s also sweet and heartwarming. It’s got a surprisingly A-list class for a movie that seems to have been mostly forgotten, with Christina Ricci and James McAvoy as the leads and people like Peter Dinklage and Reese Witherspoon in supporting roles.
I found the production design interesting in that it’s sort of modern retro, which gives it a fairy tale aura. It was made in 2006, so that would be pre-iPhone, but there are no cell phones, the cameras are all film cameras, they’re using typewriters instead of computers, the cars look maybe 1980s, and a lot of the clothes are more 1930s-1950s. So it’s an indeterminate not now, but still sort of present-day. Add to this the fact that it was filmed in London, so it has an old-world sense to it, but seems to be set in America. Most of the British cast members are doing American accents. The style reminds me of the original Willie Wonka movie, which was filmed mostly in Germany, but most of the characters were American, so it had this weird fairytale sense to it.
This is definitely a feel-good movie, one I think I may want to get on DVD so it’ll be handy for when I need a pick-me-up.