Never in a million years would I expect ‘Roland Emmerich’ and ‘Mozart’s opera classic’ in the same sentence. Besides, Emmerich is prominently known for his works in the sci-fi and disaster genres, as seen in notable blockbusters like ‘Stargate,’ ‘Independence Day’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow.’ But it’s not like he never steps out of his comfort zone in the past. He directed war films in ‘The Patriot’ and ‘Midway’ and even did a coming-of-age drama titled ‘Stonewall.’ In ‘The Magic Flute,’ Emmerich may not be in charge of directing the latest movie. Still, some of his mainstream-friendly visual influences remain present, even serving only as a producer.
First, a little history about Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ refers to the 1791 opera where Emanuel Schikaneder wrote the libretto and sang the role of Papageno in a bass tone. The opera premiered on September 30, 1791, to be exact, and it was notable as Mozart’s last opera before he died at the age of 35.
‘The Magic Flute’ also made its mark as one of the most recognizable singspiels ever performed – a term literally means ‘sing-play,’ which is a mix of German-language musical numbers and spoken dialogue. The movie version sees Emmerich and Florian Sigl, with the latter making his feature-length directorial debut, updating the opera into a contemporary re-imagining that blends fantasy, romance, and coming-of-age story rolled into one.
The story adds a new protagonist specifically created for the movie in the form of Tim Walker (Jack Wolfe), a 17-year-old student from London who attends the boarding school – Mozart All Boys Music School located in the Austrian Alps to fulfill his lifelong dream of a singer after his father passed away.
But his days in the school aren’t exactly a welcoming one, namely the school’s headmaster, Dr. Longbow (F. Murray Abraham), who doubts how he sings in class. He also falls for a mysterious girl, Sophie (Niamh McCormack), and even finds himself transported to the fantastical world of Mozart’s opera after entering the mysterious portal — think ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ — inside the school’s library.
From there, he comes across several familiar characters such as Papageno (Iwan Rheon, appearing as a comic relief) and Sarastro (Morris Robinson, reprising his role from the family-friendly English-language version of the opera classic of the same name). Just like the opera classic, Tim – who becomes Prince Tamino in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ – is sent on a quest to rescue the imprisoned Princess Pamina (Asha Banks).
The rest of the movie spends time with Tim/Prince Tamino going back and forth between the real world in the confines of the boarding school and the alternate reality of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ And the high-school drama and the save-the-princess adventure aren’t the only things that Tim has to deal with here since the movie also includes the protagonist and most of the characters bursting into songs as well.
Songs that combine not only Mozart’s opera classics but also some modern tunes, which at one point, we see Jack Wolfe and Niamh McCormack perform a piano duet of The Jackson 5’s (and later famously covered by Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz) ‘I’ll Be There.’
Sigl doesn’t go a full-on ‘Moulin Rouge’ route here as he made the right choice retaining the arias – though with some of the original lyrics altered — found in Mozart’s opera, and it helps that he assembled actual opera singers into his cast. This includes bass opera singer Morris Robinson and operatic soprano Sabine Devieilhe among others, where the latter delivers a showstopping opera performance as the Queen of the Night. Robinson, in the meantime, has a distinctive deep baritone voice that sounds like James Earl Jones.
As for the protagonist, I was initially worried that Jack Wolfe, who is neither a trained opera singer nor a singer by profession, couldn’t keep up with some of his musically-trained co-stars in ‘The Magic Flute.’ But he manages to pull off his dual singing role as Tim and Prince Tamino, where he reportedly had intensive training with vocal coach Sam Kenyon.
It’s nice to see F. Murray Abraham here, making the best use of his otherwise limited role as the headmaster, Dr. Longbow. This isn’t the first time the 83-year-old screen veteran acted in a movie related to Mozart since F. Murray Abraham famously made his mark playing the Italian composer Antonio Salieri – the role which won him an Oscar for Best Actor in Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus.’
Too bad the movie’s attempt to give the age-old opera classic a YA-like makeover feels like it was a decade or so too late. The combination of the fantasy and coming-of-age elements comes across as either generic or half-hearted. The romance angle between Tim and Sophie barely convinces me with their manufactured chemistry and the overall CGI. Notably, a scene where Tim encounters a giant serpent earlier in the movie is adequate at best.