Abracadabra is indeed a style-over-substance fable. Even the style is style-over-substance; and the substance is style-over-substance.
At least half of Faozan Rizal’s Abracadabra is inspired by the works of Wes Anderson (or probably Alejandro Jodorowsky in some elements). The visual elements—including the symmetry, the pastel-colored palette, the static camera, and the theatrical blocking—somehow confirms the hypothesis. The visuals, however, match up to its whimsical storyline about a magician mystery comedy, which becomes the movie’s bare-spine.
Reza Rahadian takes up the center-stage as a flamboyant magician, Lukman, with a magical wooden box called Yggdrasil. On a big-league magic show, Lukman attempts to make a little boy vanish using the box. And yet, when the boy vanishes, the quirky magician fails to bring him back. This event draws attention to many other pivotal figures in the circle of magicians, including Barnas the veteran (Egy Fedly); but, most worrisomely, it also draws the attention of a corrupted, cow-blaming police chief referred only as Komisar (Butet Kertaradjasa). Abracadabra follows Lukman as he evades Komisar’s foul investigation and, at the same time, find the real secret of Yggdrasil.
Rizal, a DoP turned director, writes the narrative with striking visuals to complement the whimsical story. When Anderson uses his visual prowess to present a caricature world, Rizal crafts a vibrant, fable world out of it. However, the visuals begin to take over the story as the story begins to stray away from common logic. At this point, criticism about plot-holes is no longer relevant since Abracadabra has moved beyond the realm of naturalism. The narrative begins to descend to become dream-like with surreal events and places begin to show up. At the same time, the stranger-than-fiction world-building begins to overshadow the initial plot direction—creating more complexity than answers. It somehow becomes a children fable with intrigues and complexities of adult prose.
Abracadabra‘s world relies on colorful, carnival-like costumes and venues. Shot in Yogyakarta, Rizal with the creative team (supervised by Sekala Niskala‘s Kamila Andini) repurposes the city’s historical landmarks into some somber chamber of a cult magic institute; and the pristine landscape into weird-colored jungle and beaches. Unlike in Andini’s previous work where the surreal world adds depths to the real-life counterpart, Rizal’s world works in an entirely different manner. There’s no heart nor commentary in it, even when the world might slice up real-world history at some parts.
One of the most crucial “magic” effects to create Abracadabra‘s world is the use of extremely saturated color grading. Seemingly it poses a challenging production process. Actors need to wear costumes of different colors in different settings to achieve the eventual, similar look. Furthermore, some of them need to apply thick, colored make-ups to make sure that their complexion looks natural on postproduction. This might be one of the factors why Reza Rahadian does not look as adept as in his usual performances. Rahadian might be known as a chameleon in Indonesian’s movie industry; he has transformed into some difficult characters—a horrible boss, a former president, a comedy legend—but, none of them is as difficult as his performance as Lukman. His former personas might showcase unique gestures or facial features, but, they’re all off of real persons; Lukman, on the other hand, does not belong to the real world. As of now, a non-real-world character might probably become Rahadian’s kryptonite.
Labeling the whole venture as a style-over-substance piece might be the fairest argument. The art direction, the production design, the cinematography, and the world-building are undoubtedly exquisite. The roster of fictional characters are also enticing (Dewi Irawan’s Gypsy character and Jajang C. Noer’s Frida Kahlo-esque moniker might be among the best). Unfortunately, Abracadabra is an inconsistent, barely understandable mix-and-match.