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January 21, 2015

George Lucas works ‘Strange Magic’ with new animated film

Posted in: Movies

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The Bog King employs the magical powers of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristin Chenoweth) in "Strange Magic." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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Roland (Sam Palladio, top right) ventures into the Dark Forest in "Strange Magic." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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Marianne prepares to do battle with the Bog King (Alan Cumming) in "Strange Magic." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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Dawn (Meredith Anne Bull, left) and her sister, Marianne, have different attitudes toward love in "Strange Magic." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

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The Bog King has to deal with his mother, Griselda (Maya Rudolph, center), and Marianne in "Strange Magic." (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Forget Joseph Campbell and “The Power of Myth.” The inspiration for “Strange Magic,” the new animated feature co-written and produced by “Star Wars” mastermind George Lucas, was Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to make the movie using existing music and find lyrics from the songs to actually tell the story,” Lucas said recently during a phone conversation from New York City. “I was trying to take my archive of music that continues long after I did ‘American Graffiti’ and go through it.”

Opening Friday, “Strange Magic” centers on the unpleasant Bog King (Alan Cumming), a tragic figure ruling over his dark forest with a foul temper and a distaste for anything related to love. That is, until he meets Marianne (Evan Rachel Wood), a fairy princess who has also soured on love, and many unlikely romantic entanglements ensue, mostly helped along by a healthy dose of magic love potion.

The movie’s poppy soundtrack features a range of classic songs and newer titles from such performers as Elvis Presley, the Four Tops, Electric Light Orchestra, Kelly Clarkson and Black Eyed Peas.

Lucas began developing the story for the computer animated film 15 years ago at a point when his professional life was consumed with directing the three “Star Wars” prequel films. Yet personally, he felt a certain kinship to the angry, bitter Bog King.

“I was a cranky old man,” Lucas said.“I was a bachelor and had been a bachelor for 20 years,” Lucas said during a recent phone call from New York City. “I just figured I would never find that person again.”

“Strange Magic” remained in development for about 10 years, with the project finally taking off after the Walt Disney Co. bought Lucasfilm for $4.06 billion in 2012. It was then that Lucas hired longtime collaborator Gary Rydstrom to direct.

Rydstrom’s relationship with Lucas at Skywalker Sound dates back to 1983, when the recent USC film graduate began working in the machine room on “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” He went on to become an Academy Award-winning sound designer and eventually became an animation director for Pixar before returning to Lucasfilm.

“Lucasfilm is sort of a classic, old fashioned studio,” Rydstrom said in a separate interview. “It’s what I’m most excited about as a company man is that every aspect of it was done by Lucasfilm. It’s released by Disney, but the sound was done by Skywalker Sound, [Industrial Light + Magic] did the animation, George Lucas came up with the idea, so it is a homegrown Lucasfilm film.”

George Lucas poses for a photo with wife, Mellody Hobson at the premiere of "Strange Magic." (Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios)

George Lucas with wife Mellody Hobson at the premiere of “Strange Magic.” (Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios)

Organically working the music into the storytelling proved one of the trickiest aspects of the production. Lucas brought in music producer Marius de Vries, who successfully adapted pop hits for the plot of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film “Moulin Rouge,” but even with DeVries’ skill and Lucas’ clout, not everything the filmmaker wanted to achieve came to fruition.

A plan to make extensive use of Beatles music was soon scuttled over the cost of licensing the music. And despite his desire to make use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” there was never a place to work it into the story. Lucas said he was pleased with the final song list, which juxtaposes old and new.

“Marius often said, ‘You can’t put these two songs together, it won’t work,’” Lucas said. “I said, ‘Let’s try it.’ Once in awhile, we combined two things that worked great.”

Lucas’ status as the elder statesman on the production and his desire to push his collaborators to try new things extended to Rydstrom, who saw Lucas, a fellow USC alum, as a de facto post-grad film professor.

“George would joke with me sometimes, if he was looking at a cut of the movie or suggesting a shot, he would go back to USC and say ‘Don’t you remember what you learned in so-and-so’s class?’ In a pointed way he would bring up old film school stuff.”

With “Strange Magic,” however, the professor has now graduated. The project marks the end of his direct involvement with Lucasfilm movie projects; instead, Lucas said he is looking to focus on experimental filmmaking and building his new Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

(Lucas did confirm that scripts for 50 episodes of a “Star Wars” TV series and “two or three seasons” of the “Star Wars Detours” animated comedy series are “sitting on a shelf.” But when or whether those projects might materialize is unknown.)

Concluding his tenure with a film designed to appeal to 12-year-old girls appears to be satisfying enough for now — he has three daughters, including an 18-month old with wife Mellody Hobson.

“To have this young princess come and fall in love with me was more than I could ever ask for in life,” he said.

— Patrick Kevin Day | @patrickkevinday

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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