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General Magic

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
General Magic Movie Poster Image
Docu tells great Silicon Valley tale in so-so style.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 90 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Demonstrates that failure isn't the end of a process and that hard work and positive thinking can turn failures into lessons that can lead to successes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

It's not the main point, and there isn't particular focus on any one person, but movie includes an epilogue that shows how most of the people who lost their jobs at General Magic went on to do great things, including starting companies like eBay.

Violence
Sex
Language

A use of "bulls--t" and a use of "s--t." Two bleeped-out uses of "f--k" (presumably).

Consumerism

Frequent mentions/glimpses of brands, but mainly in historical context (not advertising): Google, Apple, Mac, Macintosh, Fry's, Mug Root Beer, Diet Coke, AT&T, Motorola, Sony, Philips, etc.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that General Magic is a documentary about a legendary Silicon Valley startup -- staffed both by Apple Computers veterans and fresh, younger talents -- that tried to build the first smartphone, years before the internet even existed. Language is infrequent but includes a use of "bulls--t," a use of "s--tty," and two bleeped-out uses of "f--k." Brands are shown frequently, but more in the context of history than as advertising. Violence, sex, and drinking/drugs/smoking aren't issues. The movie is stretched out and fairly basic in terms of filmmaking, but it also benefits from a treasure trove of archival footage and some good modern-day interviews. Plus, it's a great story for tweens and up.

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What's the story?

GENERAL MAGIC tells the story of the "most important company to come out of Silicon Valley that no one's ever heard of." After the launch of the Apple Mac computer in the mid-1980s, Apple team members Andy Hertzfeld and Joanna Hoffman joined forces with CEO Marc Porat of the Aspen Institute to start a new company, General Magic. Their goal was to build an all-in-one personal computing device that could fit in your pocket. They assembled a team of smart, amazing people and got to work. But word got out, and comparable devices started to appear. By the time the "Magic Link" was released, it was a complete failure. Or perhaps it was just ahead of its time?

Is it any good?

This documentary explores one of Silicon Valley's most essential stories; it's told in a pretty ordinary way, and it's stretched too thin, but it's ultimately still enlightening and inspiring. Co-directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude start General Magic with a little hyperbole -- like a trailer for their own movie -- as well as several high-flying drone shots of the Bay Area, before getting going. Talking heads and some archival footage set the time and place, illustrating General Magic as an early startup at which staffers didn't have to wear suits and ties. Porat, speaking in a smooth, assured voice, begins to make things sound important.

Happily, the documentary features Tony Fadell, who went on to do great things later on, remembering his early days at General Magic. He was a kid, eager to jump in, and his excitement during his interview helps underline the excitement that might have been felt at the time. Extensive archival footage by filmmaker David Hoffman also helps fill in the picture. While most of the interviewees frequently use phrases like "changing the world" or "looking into the future" (accompanied by more drone footage), one, journalist/Recode founder Kara Swisher, lays things out clearly: Inventing a smartphone in the 1990s was like inventing a television in the 1880s; there was nothing to show on it. They were too early. General Magic could have told its story much more cleanly in a short documentary, dispensing with formula, but it's still worth seeing.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about General Magic's view of the cell phone as something we "can't live without." What are the upsides and downsides of phones today? How do they play into the idea of digital well-being?

  • What does the movie have to say about failure? Is it always a bad thing? What can be learned from it?

  • Is wealth a measure of success in this movie? Which of the interviewees went on to do things that helped people, rather than made money?

  • What are some of your own great ideas? What did you do to make them happen? What stopped them from happening?

  • Some of the interviewees talk about putting their work ahead of family. Would you ever do that? Why or why not?

Movie details

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