Everyone Has A Fantasy (Film, That Is)
Fantasy films were the first things I saw at the cinema (although my mother did also drag me to George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple’). It started, as I imagine it once did for a great many people, with ‘The Wizard of Oz’, which was rereleased in London at least twice a year.
At some point when I wasn’t paying attention fantasy films became geared uniquely to children, most exclusively to 6 year-olds, which is how we arrive at another remake of ‘The Grinch’ – not a very interesting little book to begin with – this Christmas. Happily Pixar never insults our intelligence; ‘Up’, Ratatouile’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ are particularly adept at appealing to wider ages.
It’s hard to define ‘fantasy’ – would you count ‘King Kong’, ‘Jurassic Park’, all the superhero films? Where does science fiction take over? I recently rewatched George Pal’s ‘Atlantis, the Lost Continent’ (its low budget hidden by added scenes from MGM’s ‘Quo Vadis’) and Dennis Wheatley’s bizarre Sargasso Sea adventure ‘The Lost Continent’ (double bill; see what I did there?) Other films are harder to define. Is ‘Into The Woods’ a fantasy? How about ‘The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘Being John Malkovich’?
Here are a few I would count as memorable fantasies;
Jason and the Argonauts
For its sense of gods controlling men, for its world-building and its un-Hollywoody characters (Hercules is a non-muscular middle-aged man) and for Talos, and that head-turn which terrified millions of children, including me. Ray Harryhausen had a delightful imagination and a tin ear for scripts. Luckily one of Jason’s writers had worked with Fritz Lang and it shows here – there’s a dark sense of unstoppable fate at work in this 1963 version that’s missing in the embarrassing Hallmark remake.
The Thief of Bagdad
Spelled without an ‘H’. From its epic colourful vistas to its thundering score, Korda’s adventure must have come as a shock to Britons at the start of a world war. I first saw it in an arthouse cinema, and remember being haunted by the kali-esque green goddess and by the spider, but it’s an oddly scrappy movie too – in the scene before the flying horse takes off you can clearly see that it has a smashed hoof, but I like that sort of thing; suspension of disbelief overrides the faults.
In Search of the Castaways
Minor Jules Verne but an overlooked classic of a film fantasy, as Victorian children set off in search of their father and end up being snatched by a giant condor in the Andes, outrunning a tsunami and upsetting the volcano gods, not to mention being sung to by Maurice Chevalier while stuck up a tree with an angry jaguar. Children who saw it all mention the ice-ride. It looks shoddy now, of course, but it’s also wonderful. ‘A thousand thrills and Hayley Mills!’ said the poster.
It’s man against mouse! But strangely, so much more, somewhere between a black comedy and a fable. The chemistry between two great comics, Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, is palpable (they teamed together again for the London production of ‘The Producers’, way funnier than the New York version) as two brothers seek to sell a rare masterpiece of a house, only to be defeated by a rodent who may contain a dead man’s spirit. It has the feeling of a classic fairytale, although it does also feature Belgian hair models on fire.
No caps, remember. I always preferred this George Pal UK movie to ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with which it was always paired, partly because it exists in an enclosed fairytale world that feels as European as ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’, and because its villains, Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellars, are perfect. The film was a dream for Pal, who had of course begun his career making fairytale shorts. It does feel like being read to at night by a favourite aunt.
Pixar at a peak in every way, confounding expectations again and again in a gentle, non-violent pastel-hued story with its roots in fact – a very American urban legend about a man tying balloons to a picnic chair. It has a touch of The Wizard of Oz, but in reverse, no stereotypical characters, that tearful opening and the best animated dog ever.
Tim Burton doesn’t always get it right – his casting is often all over the place, his ‘Alice’ films were disastrous and although much of ‘Sweeney Todd’ is superb it misses the grand chorale sections he chose to cut. Burton’s only perfect movie benefits from being a true labour of love; a cross between Frankenstein, Pleasantville and a Grimm’s fairy tale, and set in 1950s US suburbia, its madder elements sit perfectly comfortably within a Conservative America where to show difference is to become an outcast. It was successfully turned into a ballet by Matthew Bourne, such are its timeless elements.
Into The Woods
Here, a problematic, overlong play by Jungian psychologist James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim is untangled and clarified, making it much easier for first-timers to follow. Four fairytales (three well-known, one invented) cross each other’s paths and bring about the wrong consequences, but the woods are a metaphor for life’s troubles, and death arrives suddenly. It’s a miracle Disney left its message of loss, blame and alternate families intact. The songs are brief and downbeat (except for the hilarious ‘Agony’) but they aid the story.
SF or fantasy? Clearly an alternative timeline of Great Britain seen from the 1980s, but its style spawned a host of inferior imitators up to the recent ‘Mute’. What pushes it into fantasy is not the Orwellian template but Gilliam’s use of surrealism to show emotional responses. They say opera is created when singing is the only viable response to extreme situations, but here a man wrapped in a tornado of paper or pipework represents rulebound society.
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Wish-fulfilment brings unhappy Mia Farrow a dashing lover, who has stepped out of the silver screen for her. Woody Allen brings to life the idea that in depression-era America the movies literally saved lives – but of course a fantasy-come-true so often brings its own problems. Easily my favourite Allen film.
I’d also add Jupiter’s Moon, Kontroll, The Blacksmith and the Devil and A Bothersome Man to the list. Which fantasy films haunted you? All suggestions welcome, especially world cinema.