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‘General Magic’ Review: A Startup Before Its Time

What happens when you invent a future that remains, resolutely, in the future? Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s documentary “General Magic” looks at a Silicon Valley startup that in the early 1990s accurately imagined the world we’d be living in today. The developers, designers and engineers at General Magic worked on concepts like e-commerce, touch screens, animated emoticons and, most notably, a smartphone that would contain the world.

But the company, an Apple spinoff, eventually came undone because it couldn’t take advantage of the present, as its visionaries overlooked things like the rise of the free internet. (One General Magic developer had a small side project that would become eBay — but was apparently laughed out of the room when he pitched the idea to his colleagues.)

Kerruish herself was hired in 1992 to produce a promotional video for General Magic, which resulted in a bounty of valuable archival footage. The film vividly portrays the company’s inventive spirit, and present-day interviews with key employees — many of whom went on to important roles at Google, Adobe and elsewhere — make it clear that their time at General Magic was instrumental in their later successes.

The film does romanticize this era quite a bit, and, particularly in later scenes, leans heavily on soaring drone shots and melancholy music to convey the heartbreak of the company’s failure. While aesthetically pleasing, such moments can also feel like filler. “General Magic” is engaging, but there’s a tougher, tighter film in here struggling to get out.

General Magic

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.


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