Producers: Christopher Zwilcher and Fabian Wolfart Director: Florian Sigl Screenplay: Andrew Lowery, Jason Young and David White Cast: Jack Wolfe, Iwan Rheon, Stéfi Celma, Robin Gooch, Sabine Devieilhe, Asha Banks, Morris Robinson, Stefan Konarske, Lary Sirah Herden, Jasmin Shakeri, Jeanne Goursaud, Greg Wise, F. Murray Abraham, Niamh McCormack, Elliot Courtiour, Cosima Henman, Amir Wilson, Rolando Villazón, Teddy Teclebrhan, Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht and Waldemar Kobus Distributor: Shout! Studios
It’s difficult to know what to make of Florian Sigl’s “The Magic Flute.” Presumably the filmmakers (including executive producer Roland Emmerich, director of ludicrous action epics like “Independence Day,” “Godzilla” and the recent “Moonfall”) love Mozart’s final opera and wanted to present a version of it that would both appeal to established admirers and attract new ones, especially younger viewers. Unfortunately this farrago of YA romance, CGI adventure and musical bastardization fails on all counts.
The weird script centers on Tim Walker (Jack Wolfe), whose dying father (Greg Wise) encourages him to go to the Mozart Music School he once attended, giving him an old score to “The Magic Flute” to take with him. On the train to the Austrian town where the school is located in a mountaintop castle, he meets Sophie (Niamh McCormack), who turns out to be the daughter of the school’s stern headmaster Dr. Longbow (F. Murray Abraham).
Tim’s roommate Paolo (Elliot Courtiour) is a sad fellow distraught over the departure of the boy he formerly shared digs with and bullied by Anton (Amir Wilson), the son of famous operatic tenor Enrico Milanesi (Rolando Villazón). Anton’s bad attitude stems from the fact that he doesn’t want to follow in his dad’s vocal footsteps (he’s scheduled to be Prince Tamino in the school’s upcoming production of “The Magic Flute”), but to be a rock drummer! (That’s emblematic of the movie’s tendency to slide into sappy pop songs when the teen romance between Tim and Sophie takes center stage.)
Fantasy takes over when Tim sneaks into the library at 3am to return the score his father had given him to the shelf, only to be sucked into a cabinet where he finds himself at the beginning of “The Magic Flute,” pursued by a huge snake that’s dispatched by the Three Ladies (Jeanne Goursaud, Jasmin Shakeri and Lary Sirah Herden) who serve the Queen of the Night (Sabine Devieilhe). He assumes the part of Tamino, and accompanied by the comic bird-catcher Papageno (Iwan Rheon), accepts the mission to rescue the Queen daughter Pamina (Asha Banks) from the fortress of Sarastro (Morris Robinson), where she’s guarded by nasty Monostatos (Stefan Konarske). Tim is given the titular flute as protection, and cowardly Papageno gets his magic bells.
From this point the movie lurches back and forth between the operatic segments and the “real” campus ones, a circumstance that seems to have understandably rattled editor Alexander Dittner. The latter have the tenor of a mediocre YA flick, though one in costume, as Tim and Sophia talk (very shyly, in his case, in Wolfe’s tepid performance) about their lives and dreams while Longbow watches over them suspiciously and declaims in stentorian tones to the students about becoming great artists. (We’re presumably supposed to be amused by the fact that Abraham played Salieri to Tom Hulce’s Mozart in “Amadeus,” and to nod knowingly at the revelation that one of his assistants is named Suessmayr.) Meanwhile Paolo and Anton form an unlikely friendship, giving Courtiour and Wilson some dialogue scenes, though they might have come out of “The Breakfast Club.” There are also curiously elaborate discussions between a teacher and Tim about the Masonic symbolism of “The Magic Flute,” which might be intended to deepen the opera’s meaningfulness for viewers but come across as a sort of advertisement for Freemasonry.
The excerpts of the opera in the fantasy portion of the film are bedecked in impressive visuals courtesy of production designer Christoph Kanter, costumer Esther Amuser and VFX supervisor Max Riess, and shot with elegance by cinematographer Peter Matjasko, but represent a crudely potted version of Mozart’s masterpiece. The script by Andrew Lowery, Jason Young and David White, which is pretty insipid in the campus material, isn’t much better here, and suffers from the need to condense the original libretto (rather a hodgepodge to begin with) into something like a comprehensible plotline, but it’s the English translation of the musical numbers by Jeremy Sams that’s truly terrible. When Papageno’s response to the suggestion that he play his bells to thwart the threats of Monostatos and his men, for example, becomes “Might as well, what the hell!” you might be inclined to cease trying to decipher the words at all.
Many of the numbers are entirely excised, of course, but though most that remain are severely truncated, a few survive in almost complete form, and some of those are sung pretty well. The Queen’s two arias, with their stratospheric coloratura, are decently dispatched by Devieilhe, and Sarastro’s sole remaining one nobly rendered by Robinson, even if his lowest notes are a mite weak. Even Wolfe shows off an attractive light tenor in what was “Dies Bildnis.” But his is a popular rather than an operatic voice, and so are most of the others, like Banks’s Pamina (pretty weak) and Rheon’s Papageno, who’s better in his spoken comic bits than in his vocal contributions. He and Stéfi Celma, as his predestined mate Papagena, do, however, pull off their big second-act duet engagingly—as one of the score’s guaranteed crowd-pleasers, it’s included at length, of course. The accompaniments are by the Mozarteum Orchestra, and they do as well as can be expected given all the musical excisions and shortenings, which cannot have been comfortable for them to play.
“The Magic Flute” is a delectable opera, and has attracted a surprising degree of cinematic treatment. Unfortunately while one can appreciate this version’s effort to reimagine it for a modern youth audience, it joins Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film, which misguidedly transposed the story to the trenches of World War I, as a major misfire. Fortunately there is a ready alternative in Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film which, though sung in Swedish, captures in substantial measure the magic of Mozart’s creation. It’s still the “Flute” of choice.