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Mary Robinette Kowal – Four Fantastic Films That Aren’t Quite Fantasy


Two weeks ago we talked about movies you might not think of as fantasy that do in fact fall into the category. That got me thinking about movies that look like fantasy, but really aren’t. In broad definition, a fantasy evokes a sense of wonder by moving you out of the natural world. Sometimes it breaks only one rule, sometimes it establishes a whole new set of rules, but it’s always at least a step outside the realm of reality. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some beautiful productions that have all of the trappings of fantasy without breaking any rules at all. For us fantasy geeks, that means a wider range of movies to watch and enjoy; for those still timid about diving into the genre, these flicks are the perfect gateway drug. So today, lets take a look at films that aren’t by definition fantasies, but are chock full of the things we love.

Dreamchild (1985)
In this amazing movie, Jane Asher plays Alice Liddell — the real life “Alice in Wonderland” — as she travels to New York to celebrate the centennial of Lewis Carroll’s book. As she goes along she’s beset by the onset of senility, and the film depicts her confusing her memories from childhood with scenes from Wonderland. You see all of the characters, beautifully and disturbingly realized by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but none of the things she sees exist outside her head. In one scene, young Alice is sitting at the tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. When the camera cuts back to Alice, the old woman is sitting there, looking lost and confused. It is a chilling use of the tools of fantasy to create a very real sense of what it is like to lose your mind to dementia. Dreamchild looks and feels like a fantasy movie, but ultimately it’s just an old woman’s fantasy.

Big Fish (2003)
This one is often described as a fantasy movie, but when you look at the structure, it turns out that it isn’t. Will Bloom’s (Billy Crudup) father has always told him tall tales of giants and witches, which we see in vivid detail throughout the film. So…fantasy, right? Not so fast. When we get to the end, it becomes quite clear that the stories his father told were true, but exaggerations of real life. Those amazing, fantastic scenes of young Ed Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) were imaginings, but never actually happened within the world of the film. Stay with me here: In order to be fantasy, the fantastic elements must take place in the world of the film and not be confined to an individual’s imagination. A lot of stories that seem to be fantasy actually have a frame story, like this one, that keeps everything within the real world.

First Knight (1995)
Sir Lancelot joins King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He struggles with his love for Guinevere and his loyalty to the king. Sounds like a familiar fantasy plot, right? There’s just one thing missing: Magic. This is the Arthurian legend without Merlin. Like many historical epics, it delivers the elements of fantasy: The clothes, the attitudes, the landscape and the swashbuckling. The only thing a film like First Knight doesn’t do is to break the laws of the natural world. (We are, for the moment, ignoring the typical breaking of the laws of nature that most action flicks commit, otherwise I’d also have to include the newest Bond film in the fantasy category.) If you like the sweeping epic nature of fantasy, then films like this ought to appeal to you, even without the magic.

Frida (2002)
Director Julie Taymor is known for creating striking visuals in her movies, and this biopic of Frida Kahlo (played by Salma Hayek) is no exception. Using lighting and illusions brought from the world of stage, Taymor brings Frida’s paintings to life in ways that are arresting and at times terrifying. She uses elements of fantasy as a way of enhancing the storytelling: Scenes morph from paintings into live action in ways that make it clear how thoroughly Frida lives her life through her art. It also makes her paintings dynamic by delivering the direct connection to her life. This is a perfect use of film to get inside a character’s head and really show us how she thinks. It is visually fantastic, but it’s not fantasy.

Can you think of some other ways that fantasic elements are used in a non-fantasy film?

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She is also the art director at Shimmer Magazine and a professional puppeteer. Her column appears every Friday.

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