Man & Witch is a long-gestating passion project for spouses Tami Stronach and Greg Steinbruner. Best known for her role as the Childlike Empress in The Neverending Story and subsequent success as a professional dancer and educator, Stronach makes her onscreen return in Man & Witch alongside Steinbruner, a successful actor in his own right who also wrote the film.

The two produced through their family entertainment company, the Paper Canoe Company, and have been working toward general release for nearly a half-decade. Initial online rumblings and announcements preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, and the film was partially produced throughout the mess, following all necessary protocols. It’s a labor of love, harkening back to family romantic fantasies of the 1980s like The Princess Bride. Although there are some definite weaknesses to the overall film, the core through-line about love, in the most innocent fantasy sense, really shines thanks to Stronach, Steinbruner and a cast of game actors dedicated to capturing the right silly-but-sincere tone for this type of story.

Like most fantasies, Man & Witch opens with a narration outlining some backstory about our quasi-medieval setting — “the cursed Kingdom,” once known as “the contented Kingdom.” When an ogre problem developed years ago, the Kingdom’s princess (Martha West) was cursed never to marry until the infestation was solved. Unfortunately, no one has defeated them — much to the chagrin of the king (Stuart Bowman), who’s desperate to marry off his daughter and further his line. Enter the goatherd (Steinbruner), a never-married, failed-to-launch middle-aged man whose mother (Pauline McLynn) can’t help but loathe just a little. Upon the king’s declaration that he who defeats the ogres can marry his daughter, the goatherd’s mother sees an opportunity for her son, so our hero sets off to face his destiny.

But there’s a wrinkle in her plan: An evil wizard (Michael Emerson) cursed the goatherd as a child, declaring he would never take a wife. So the goatherd seeks assistance from the witch (Stronach), who was also cursed to fall in love only with a man already betrothed to another.

Yeah, that’s a lot of curses, but they work as stacking sources of tension in what very clearly becomes the story of two middle-aged people who have never been truly loved slowly, and sometimes grumpily, falling in love with one another. Perhaps it reflects Steinbruner and Stronach’s real-life romance, but everything in the film hinges on the interplay between the goatherd and the witch, and they’re delightful together. The witch gives the goatherd three impossible tasks to complete, each one serving to make him a stronger, more resourceful person while also incidentally bringing him closer to someone for whom she cannot deny her romantic feelings. It’s goofy, it’s fun and it’s fundamentally sweet. Their final task — the Dance of 1,000 Steps (also the film’s subtitle) — is a great bit, filled with odd choreography that even the characters describe as “weird.”

Besides real-world chemistry translating into an onscreen relationship, the grown-adult nature of the goatherd and the witch sets apart Man & Witch. Neither behaves like an overgrown child (or at least not entirely) and both come across as decent, if somewhat damaged, individuals. It’s a different flavor than young love or destined-to-rule prince and princess material.

Unfortunately, for a small-budget production, a few bits still simply don’t quite work despite best efforts. For one, the ogre design feels budget-friendly in a bad way, with minimalistic costumes that don’t convey their monstrous nature. The ogres’ keep is probably the lowest point of the film, which is strongest when focused on the relationships between characters.

The goatherd’s best friends are three talking animals, designed by Jim Henson’s Muppet Shop. The main one is a dog (voiced by Sean Astin), who takes on the literal role of “man’s best friend” and also narrates the film; Astin does an amiable job of both. A goose (voiced by Jennifer Saunders) and a sheep (voiced by Eddie Izzard) join their human pal on his quest, but neither feels necessary in the grand scheme of the story. The sheep, in particular, is kind of groan-worthy. On the one hand, if Izzard is game for a small voice role in your film, you might as well use him. On the other, why have his animal just pop in to spout non sequitur movie quotes like “I see dead people”? It’s a comedy bit that never works and is not missed when it essentially disappears in the back half to favor more development for the goatherd and the witch.

The cast also includes Christopher Lloyd in a perfectly calibrated cameo as the witch’s father and Daniel Portman of Game of Thrones fame as the captain of the king’s guard.

Some fans might be surprised to watch fantasy on a budget given that so much of the genre these days demands outsized production values, so the best comparison this 1990s kid can come up with is that Man & Witch looks, and feels, a bit like the straight-to-VHS fairytale retellings my grandmother used to own when I was growing up. Most — most — elements of set design or costuming that might look on the side of “cheap” are part and parcel with the general charm of the fantasy setting. Director Michael Hines seems to know what kind of film he’s making and shoots it accordingly. Aside from the ogres, which are really difficult to stomach, everything else feels perfectly aligned with the film’s goal, which is to tell a heartwarming story about likable characters finding love.

In that most important regard of Man & Witch, Stronach and Steinbruner succeed.

Man & Witch is aiming for a wide release in early 2024.