And so the final countdown begins for Harry Potter. With the premiere of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 this weekend, we see the beginning of the end of a monumentally successful literary and cinematic franchise that has taken us to other worlds and beyond… yet not so far outside our own.
Many of us entered the world of Harry Potter as skeptics, not meaning to enjoy ourselves but becoming spellbound all the same. There is much of the delightful, the wondrous, and the unusual in this world, thanks to author J. K. Rowling and her power of imagination. For me, the greatest triumph of Harry Potter lies not in any one character or plot line. The power of the story to draw even the reluctant in is the seamless, thoughtfully rendered “magical” world in which the wizards and witches of the world operate, alongside but largely invisible to the “normal” world. The attention to detail in rendering this world is extraordinary and full of surprises.
A cleverly rendered fantasy world has the power to make us believe astounding things, and to transport us to places we may never have imagined ourselves. In the history of film there have been countless attempts to take real-world places and performers outside the realm of what has been seen before, and into far-off lands where the amazing, the terrifying, and the marvelous lurk around every corner. Join me (Dan Fields) and my colleague Julia Rhodes as we reach down a few rabbit holes and call up some of the greatest fantasy worlds committed to film.
Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Bureaucracy and paranoia are nothing new to science fiction and fantasy. Authors from Asimov to Orwell to Kafka to Dick have made most of us familiar with the manifold horrors of the establishment. Terry Gilliam’s bizarre and starkly beautiful Brazil hearkens to these writers, with a healthy touch of his own darkest humor. In his world, all the miles of paperwork and closed circuit television wire seem to signify nothing at all. The bureaucracy is an endless runaround loop masking the possibility that there is no one at all behind the curtain. Where do all the orders come from, if not from on high?
A dystopian story is inherently a satire, but Gilliam’s film plays like a spoof on the dystopian satire. Everyone is literally running around with no idea what’s going on. It is enough to make a person want to go insane, and as we learn, that may in fact be the only option.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce in a rare leading role) is a lowly cog in the great machine, who foolishly gets involved when he feels the “system” may have made an error at the cost of an innocent life. Big mistake. The more he tries to get to the bottom of things, the more the bottom of things falls out from under him. From his jittery supervisor (Ian Holm), to Lowry’s creepy mother (Katherine Helmond) and her plastic surgeon (Jim Broadbent), to a couple of repairmen (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor) sent to distract and confuse him, to his old friend turned government interrogator (Michael Palin in a profoundly disturbing turn), Sam has to contend just about as much emotional sabotage and personal hindrance as one body can stand.
Did I mention he’s out to save a local woman he’s been coincidentally been dreaming about for years but only just met? And that his investigation has gotten him linked with a wanted terrorist (Robert De Niro) who may or may not have committed any crime at all? There’s really no way out without dire consequences of some kind or another. The futuristic world in which Sam operates (fails to operate, really) has no loose corners, shortcuts, or apparent weak spots. It’s as tight a prison as rules can make. If only Foucault had lived another year, he might have had some great things to say about Brazil.
With a film this bleak, Gilliam wisely mixes in a great deal of admittedly surreal humor. It’s about as dark as a comedy can get, right up there with Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, but yes, it’s quite funny. Keep an eye out for little touches, like the secretary who calmly transcribes a brutal interrogation – no… please… NO! scream – as though it were an ordinary dictated letter. If you’re up for a heavy and uncomfortably immersive piece of work, take the time and you will be rewarded.
Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Except for a few Saturday morning cartoons (a long time ago), Japanese animation has more or less passed me by in the night. The deepest I am generally willing to plunge is the Studio Ghibli output, which is definitely “anime lite.” I will admit, though, that Hayao Miyazaki has got one heck of an imagination, and Spirited Away really captured me in the opening minutes.
The film’s premise is simple, but the world it paints is so lovely and unusual that the eye cannot help pausing to admire every detail. The story begins in classic fashion for a child-centered fantasy tale. A young girl named Chihiro, while moving to a strange new home, loses her parents to some bad magic and has to embark on weird adventures to rescue them. Bottom line, she finds herself in a parallel world, exploring a kind of resort for ghosts and spirits.
Chihiro gets a job in the bath house, seeing to the comfort of strange beings. All of it is overseen by Yubaba, a bad-tempered and oddly proportioned old witch whose dark magic and nasty minions make Chihiro’s life awfully tough. Fortunately, she finds a number of clever allies – a dragon boy, a spider man, a giant baby turned into a mouse, and a bizarre faceless being like a mass of shadow which seems to take a liking to her. Yup. All the usual suspects.
Spirited Away brims with wonderful surprises, which is one great advantage of setting a story in the spirit world. Chihiro’s quest forces her to make tough decisions, trust unfamiliar people and things, give of herself for others, and ultimately do a little bit of growing up. Not so much, however, that she loses her youthful gifts of wonder and respect for the forces she encounters.
The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980)
Of all the amazing achievements of Star Wars, one of the greatest is the enduring vision of what adventure and war look like in space. All starship battles will be compared to the climactic fights of these films. All alien planets will be judged by the icons that George Lucas made of Tatooine, Endor, Dagobah and the rest. And then there’s Darth Vader. And Chewbacca. And such. I mean, come on.
Of the three original films, I have always liked The Empire Strikes Back best. There is no time lost setting any stages, and no winding down or epilogue required. It is pure action, with a high-impact cliffhanger. In many ways, it is the perfect sequel. It also introduced numerous integral bits of Star Wars lore. Among these are the Imperial battle walkers, Yoda, Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and of course, the Imperial March. Say what you will, John Williams never topped that piece of movie music. And yes, I love Jaws, Indiana Jones, and for that matter everything else he wrote for Star Wars.
More than its ancestor or its offpspring, Empire makes tremendous use of the boundless galaxy, presenting a wide assortment of strange new worlds. We open on the ice planet Hoth, put in summer vacation in the swamps of Dagobah, and finish up in the techno-marvel that is the Cloud City of Bespin. Here Lucas proved that his planets were not all proto-civilized basic terrain types.
In addition, we spend some time in the belly of a space worm on a lonesome asteroid. The other films spent much larger chunks of time on one or two worlds – mostly the deserts Tatooine, and then the forests of Endor. There was more story to unfold, and some time needed to be spent doing it.
Not The Empire Strikes Back. Narratively rich as it is, it’s a film about being on the run. Stopping too long to take stock means certain doom, so the movie keeps a-movin’ at a fairly furious pace. The opportunity is there, then, to have a glance at many different worlds, and if the possibility of life on other planets implies this many possibilities, I’d say we Earthlings had better get our butts in gear and get out there.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (dir. Henry Selick, 1993)
This enchanting fable is among Tim Burton’s most popular creations. In the able hands of director Henry Selick and Touchstone Pictures, it weaves a world in which holidays don’t arise from human observance at all. They each exist independently and for their own sakes, hidden in a magical cove – there’s a door to Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and so on. At the appointed time each year, the denizens of each little world emerge to bring people the spirit of the holiday in question.
Interesting. So what if two holidays met? Would it be the most fun ever, or the biggest metaphysical disaster on record? Well, a little of both. Jack Skellington, king of Halloween Town, is tired of the same old spooky routine and goes for a walk in the woods to clear his skull. Lo and behold, he discovers a strange door leading to a place he’s never seen before.
Christmas Town!. Captivated by the novelty and sweetness of the place, Jack decides to hijack the holiday for himself and teach himself how to bring Christmas cheer to the world. The only trouble is that all he really knows is how to scare people. His well-meaning efforts end up bungling the Yuletide royally and upsetting every child in the world. When Halloween comes where Christmas should be, everything gets all out of place.
The only thing for it is to rescue Santa Claus – Jack naturally had to have him hidden away – and try to save the holiday before everything is ruined for good.
The whimsical and weird govern this film. Yet Burton’s rendering makes even the most hideous Halloween monster into tender, good-hearted folk who only scare people because it’s their job, and because it’s fun!. Jack has to learn that the world needs that just as much as it needs the joy and love of the Christmas season.
The concept is wonderfully odd, and the execution stunning. The storybook presentation (with a twist), the masterful stop-motion animation, and Danny Elfman’s poignant score make this a holiday treat worth escaping to and enjoying year after year.
The Triplets Of Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
I daresay this comic fable is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It took the world rather by storm and became an instant cult classic. The Triplets Of Belleville is set in curiously re-imagined renditions of France and America. The animation sometimes seems like a mix of Bill Plympton, Chuck Jones, and Terry Gilliam. The story, told almost entirely without dialogue, follows Madame Souza, a diminuitive but feisty little woman whose mission in life is looking after her melancholy grandson, Champion, and raising him to be a great competitive cyclist.
When a weird criminal kingpin abducts Champion as part of a convoluted Tour de France gambling scheme, Madame Souza must set out from her beloved hometown to the grimy, unfriendly “big city.” Along the way, she encounters a trio of elderly music hall legends, the triplets of Belleville. Madame Souza joins their wacky musical act, which eventually leads her to the bottom of the plot against Champion and gives her the opportunity to rescue him.
It’s pure madcap. We get ships as tall as skyscrapers, cackling old ladies fishing with hand grenades, athlete training with lawnmowers and eggbeaters, and incongruously shaped characters that call to mind a single comic strip invading all its neighbors on the funny pages. To anchor all the craziness, Chomet’s film is at heart a touching fable about family, both the kind you’re born with and the kind you acquire in time. The layouts and landscapes of this world are painstakingly rendered to mirror the feelings of the characters. It is visual storytelling at its best.
Though the main settings are ostensibly Paris and New York, the geography is not quite so grounded in reality that one must interpret it this way. It’s about traveling from home to foreign and unfriendly places, only to find adventure, a timeless theme which could take place anywhere. Sly wit, rousing music, and unapologetically zany execution make this film a nice change from the ordinary. In short, you’d better just see it if you want to make sense of it.
The Chronicles of Narnia films (The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, 2005; Prince Caspian, 2008; upcoming Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 2010) (dir. Andrew Adamson, Michael Apted)
C.S. Lewis’s beloved Narnia books would never have been made into films were it not for the insane success of the Lord of the Rings series or the Harry Potter series. All take place in alternate worlds–and all make you long to shed your petty real-world existence and away to live there (though it’s worth noting that these films didn’t cause marked depression in audiences like Avatar apparently did). The first two Narnia books and films follow Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter Pevensie as they discover a magical door to the land of Narnia. The first book is escapism at its giddy best: the siblings first journey to Narnia during the Blitz in the 1940s, after evacuation from bombed-out London. What better way for children to weather the storm of WWII than to delve into their imaginations? Prince Caspian draws the children back to Narnia to rescue the world once again from a cruel leader. Unfortunately, Disney dropped the Chronicles movies after the second movie didn’t fare well box-office-wise, and 2010’s Dawn Treader has an entirely new director and production company.
Despite their inherent silliness I rather love the first two films. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe not only contained beautiful snowscapes and a young and relatively unknown (but shirtless) James McAvoy, but also one of the most satisfying battle scenes since Return of the King. (I’m really letting my inner geek flag fly here.) Prince Caspian introduced the world to Ben Barnes, contained an adorable talking mouse named Reepicheep, and further escalated the fantastic special effects. The first two films feature a magnificent score by Harry Gregson-Williams and special effects by Weta Workshop and ILM. Combine these factors and you have a seamless world, one in which children become kings and queens, lions speak, griffins fight airborne battles, and even perpetual winter and unending strife can’t dampen the spirits of the downtrodden population. Contrast this fantastic, mountainous, infinitely lovely world with the muted, dingy real one, and you’ve got a brilliant fantasy. I’m skeptical of the third film, considering all the changes the production underwent, but I’ll probably still be in the theater seat.
“Fringe” (created by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, 2008-present)
From the vivid imagination of “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams sprung Fox’s moderately successful sci-fi show “Fringe,” which follows a fictional FBI division as they investigate paranormal occurrences. Detective Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), and Bishop’s son Peter (Joshua Jackson) work together to solve crimes relating to “the Pattern” while enormous, frightening corporation Massive Dynamic continues to finance research into alternate universes.
Does “fictional FBI division that investigates paranormal occurrences” sound familiar to you? I had recently finished a marathon viewing of all nine seasons of “The X-Files” when I decided to start watching “Fringe.” It seemed like The X-Files part 2 to me. Though Abrams’ show doesn’t disappoint (I’m still watching it three seasons later), it’s no substitute. The first season of the show is slow–but most as most series do, “Fringe” started off at a jerky plod and speeded up in the second season. The show is based on the theory that outside our realm exists another world nearly identical to ours. Alternate versions of the show’s characters live out their lives in this world where 9/11 never happened and science leapt and bounded far ahead of anything we know.
The way the show juxtaposes the two worlds is artful, though, and almost more complex than the series seems to want to be. John Noble is lovable and sad as mad scientist Walter, Joshua Jackson is as charming as ever as Peter Bishop, and while Anna Torv’s Dunham speaks oddly and seems to have a slight smirk on her face most of the time, she’s not half bad. The cast is getting a regular workout playing two different versions of themselves–and after a few trial runs everyone seems to have picked up on their alternate versions’ differences and run with them.
“Fringe”‘s most obnoxious trait is the way it talks down to the audience. We already know that when the two universes collide, disaster is inevitable–but the show illustrates this like Bill Nye the Science Guy would (and no offense to Bill, because he’s awesome) by having characters smash two snow globes together. Kidnap your son’s alternate? Disaster. Send over another version of Dunham? Disaster. Find a place where the fabric is thinnest and try to bring the two together? Yeah, we know: don’t f#$% with the space-time continuum. The third season is taking forever to build up to what I hope will be a satisfying climax.
As an aside, the show has also borrowed a big chunk of the cast of “The Wire,” which is great since none of them seem to be doing much anymore. Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels), Andre Royo (Bubbles!), and Jim True-Frost (Pryzbylewski) have already appeared–a girl can hope for more.
Pan’s Labyrinth (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
Guillermo del Toro, who lately brought us the American Hellboy films, made Pan’s Labyrinth in Spain. Like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe‘s Lucy Pevensie, Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Ofelia is an imaginative child who chooses to dismiss the real world in favor of her fantasy in the midst of a fascist reign. Unlike Narnia, there’s nothing cute or uplifting about Ofelia’s alternate world. No–Pan’s Labyrinth plays on the very dark edge of fantasy and edges over into horror.
del Toro’s visual style is distinct–artistic, sharply beautiful, and utterly bizarre. Dialogue and story takes a backseat to the incredible imagery. In each of his films, from Hellboy to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, del Toro showcases a fascination (perhaps even an obsession) with fairy tales. You know, those lovely little bedtime stories we heard when we were children, some of which Disney co-opted? Then we grew older and realized the Brothers Grimm were really f$&%ed up and Hans Christian Andersen was a total weirdo? Yeah, those. The fantastic characters of Pan’s Labyrinth, from the mysterious Faun to the Pale Man (both played by brilliant body actor Doug Jones) to the fairies, are menacing and even downright horrifying. Unfortunately for Ofelia the real world proves to be just as terror-inducing when Ofelia’s mother marries a cruel, tyrannical Captain who takes pleasure in killing and only wants an heir.
The fantasy world, as cruel, strange, and terrifying as it is, is seamlessly interwoven with the real world. The labyrinth exists in the real world, but not as Ofelia sees it; a door in her bedroom floor opens into the Pale Man’s lair. Fairies visit her in the real world, but no adult can see them. As Ofelia journeys deep into the labyrinth, her home life continues to twist and break until nothing seems real. In film, when a child creates a fantasy world it almost always coincides in some way–obvious or not–with the real world. Pan’s Labyrinth‘s alternate world only does in its brutality. The only way to achieve happiness, according to Pan’s Labyrinth, is to sacrifice yourself. Recognize this theme from something else (this week’s big release, perhaps)?
Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze, 2009)
I already wrote a review of Where the Wild Things Are when it released. Nonetheless, it sticks in my head as one of the few films of the last couple of years that successfully builds a fantasy world in which you’d love to live. In Maurice Sendak’s classic book, troublemaker Max is sent to bed without dinner. His bedposts abruptly begin to sprout leaves, his carpet to spring forth grass. Max’s bedroom transforms before the reader’s eyes into a forest, and he sails away to the place where the wild things are. They roar and gnash their teeth, and adopt him as one of them when he proves himself to be just as scary. Finally, Max decides he really ought to be getting home and returns to his bedroom, where a bowl of soup awaits him…and it’s still warm.
The book is a lovely childhood memory for many of us. I insisted on multiple readings, often nightly, and along with The Polar Express, Where the Wild Things Are remains in my possession twenty years later. When word escaped perennial weirdo/music video guru Spike Jonze was making an adaptation of the book into a feature length film, it either caused a wide-eyed “WTF?” reaction, or a slow clap. Sendak himself gradually came out in favor of the film (and proved to be an entertainingly outspoken curmudgeon), and I was in it to win it. Author Dave Eggers penned the script, Sendak was behind it, it starred Catherine Keener…and the movie is pretty brilliant.
Jonze’s signature style is here; music from The Arcade Fire graced the trailer and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s Karen O. lent her shrieky, wildly vascillating voice to the soundtrack. Max Records, an unknown 12-year-old, manages to put out an incredible performance. Max, angry that his newly divorced mother is dating and his sister’s friends smashed his snowfort (with him inside), throws a tantrum. Instead of pouting in his room, the movie’s Max runs out the front door into the frozen suburban snowscape. He sails away on a tiny sailboat and meets the monsters, leaving his distraught mother behind. Jonze managed to bring each and every Wild Thing to life in the best way possible combining CGI and beautiful costumes. Each has his or her own personality, voiced by the likes of Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Catherine O’Hara. The Wild Things are a dissolute family racked by emotional trauma, and they just need a leader. Max takes this mantle, but only until he can’t handle it anymore.
Watching twelve-year-old Records interact with these enormous costumed creatures, especially in a Wild Thing-dogpile that mirrors the snowfort collapse…well, it’s a little terrifying and definitely exhilarating. The world Jonze and his production crew created is as much fantastic as it appears totally real. Stick forts shaped like cornucopias, tiny rivers that flow through cavernous makeshift structures of tree branches, and arid deserts contrasted with darkest of wooded forest–it all combines to make a fantasy land unlike anything else you’ve seen. The Wild Things were brought to roaring, gnashing life by the Jim Henson studio, and after much trial and error, even the way they swing away from the actors’ belabored movements looks right.
Like The Wizard of Oz, Jumanji, and to an extent Pan’s Labyrinth, Max’s fantasy land mirrors his real life…and as in those films, he enters it looking for an escape and comes out wiser. When he finally returns home, his exhausted mother collapses into a dead sleep on the kitchen table, and when Max looks at her, he sees her for the first time. He understands, suddenly, what adulthood is and how it feels to be the head of a dysfunctional family. It’s a beautifully filmed movie with great performances, and managed to create one of the most memorable fantasy lands in recent history.
Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010)
I wasn’t sure if this was the correct kind of fantasy world for an article based around the newest Harry Potter movie. I’ve also already written about Inception, which is one of my absolute favorites of 2010 and the only movie I’ve seen twice in theaters in years. Upon thinking more carefully, Dan and I concluded that certainly Inception works here. It’s simply a more adult-centered fantasy land.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Inception is about a group of dream thieves. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the best “extractor” in the business, able to remove thoughts and desires from the heads of his victims. When Saito (Ken Watanabe) sets him on a mission to plant a thought in someone’s head, Cobb picks up a formidable set of professionals and they set to it. What follows is layer after layer of insane dream world, anti-gravity, collapsing and twisting reality. Cobb, unfortunately, is having a hard time separating his real life and his dream life–in which his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) haunts him. Intersperse this with Hans Zimmer’s blatting, heart-pounding score and Nolan’s signature tension, and you’ve got a fantasy-thriller for big kids (a.k.a. me).
Each dream world is built by the architect (Ellen Page’s Ariadne–named after the Greek goddess of the labyrinth), sustained by the druggist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and maintained by a team of intellectual and emotional thieves. The dream worlds through which they move are patently similar to the real world–after all, they must trick the target into believing he isn’t dreaming–but when something goes wrong, the fantasies become corrupted. Buildings collapse into ruins, the subconscious sends random passersby to attack the dreamer, and worlds collide.
I’ve long been fascinated by dreams, so I’m probably the ideal audience member for this movie. Nonetheless, I’m consistently thrilled with the kinds of dreams people have and the way they connect to real life, whether tenuously or concretely. Humans have to dream, and dreams are one of the ways the brain insists on letting off steam. When there is no real Harry Potter universe to inhabit, no real-life Wild Things, no labyrinth–when we unfortunately begin to grow out of childhood imaginings–dreams are our escape. Inception created an intricately interwoven world of dreams, where train tracks run next to an elevator into the earth, childhood cottages stand in canals surrounded by glassy modern cities, and Paris explodes into a million pieces while not a single person moves. It’s no wonder these characters become dream addicts–if my dreams were much like this, I’d never want to wake up.