Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga—a title that never gets easier to deal with—is the dopamine hit we need this summer. If you’re missing the Eurovision Song Contest this year, Fire Saga has you covered with a series of Eurovision All-Star cameos and original songs that honor the theatrical, goofy-ass spirit of Eurovision. If you aren’t familiar with Eurovision but still want to watch something funny, don’t worry, Fire Saga judiciously sprinkles in exposition to cover the basics of the international music competition (which really does just boil down to “Europe, Israel, and Australia for some reason compete in a talent show”). And if you just don’t like Will Ferrell or his movies, then you can just move along and chop some celery, because Fire Saga is 100% a Will Ferrell movie, even a little bit to its own detriment.
Ferrell has always been fascinated with obsessives and winning, and usually he puts his fascination to work lampooning the American over-emphasis on being number one—best exemplified by Talladega Nights, but also in evidence in Blades of Glory, Anchorman, and Step Brothers—but here he turns his eye on Europe and their annual musical extravaganza, Eurovision. But the sensibility toward winning is different in Europe, and so by necessity, is Fire Saga different. Without America’s scorched earth sensibility toward competition, Fire Saga is a kinder, gentler Ferrell portrait of particular obsession and competition. Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) wants to win Eurovision, but not to be a pop star, he just wants to show his distant, disapproving father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), that he isn’t wasting his life with his music (being a pop star is a byproduct).
Fathers and sons have also long interested Ferrell, who co-wrote Fire Saga with Andrew Steele (a former SNL writer), but Fire Saga feels grounded in real, tangible relationships. This feels like the flipside of Step Brothers, where a dysfunctional paternal relationship drove a man to eternal childhood, here it drives a man to strive for a seemingly impossible dream. Lars is almost solely fueled by his desire to prove himself to his father. Even though Eurovision is a large-scale competition and a huge f-cking deal, the stakes of Fire Saga seem lower and more personal than they have in any other Ferrell movie.
As a Will Ferrell comedy, Fire Saga is goddamn delightful. It packs a joyful punch, gently lampooning the flamboyant theatricality of Eurovision, while still paying homage to the music with sincere affection. Fire Saga’s original songs are WILDLY catchy—I’ve been singing “Ja Ja Ding Dong” all weekend—but they are well-crafted pop tunes, with lyrics just goofy enough to spoof the sometimes goofy nature of Eurovision itself. Fire Saga successfully walks the line of respecting the source while still acknowledging when the source is inherently funny.
But Fire Saga does miss a couple steps. One is in casting Demi Lovato as an Icelandic pop singer and Eurovision candidate. Nothing against Ms. Lovato, but this was a blown opportunity to highlight an actual Icelandic artist, and it feels like a real misstep on the part of the film. The second is a bit bigger, as it involves skewing the perspective away from Lars, and onto his creative partner, Sigrit (Rachel McAdams). Together they make up Fire Saga, and the movie concentrates on Sigrit’s long-unrequited love for Lars, who won’t get involved with her in case it should harm the band. Many people tell Sigrit she can do better than Lars, but she loves him for his dreams and optimism. It is sweet, and as is, Fire Saga is perfectly fine.
But it could have been something more, maybe even special, if it had focused instead on Sigrit, a woman navigating between a man she sincerely loves but who cannot match her talent, and a man who matches her creatively, but cannot, for obvious reasons, fulfill her romantically. That man is Russian Eurovision star Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, giving another glorious performance. The best thing he ever did was leave Downton Abbey). Fire Saga acknowledges that Sigrit is the real star of the music duo, giving her the grand finale number. But the film holds back from being about her in a way that would have made it deeper and more interesting, and actually given it something to say about creative pursuits, relationships, and what happens when those things diverge. Still, Fire Saga is perfectly enjoyable, and a much-needed dose of unrestrained joy. There’s just that glimmer of unfulfilled potential about it.