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Mary Robinette Kowal – Five Spellbinding Films You Never Knew Were Fantasy

Typically, fantasy invokes images of trees and elves and magic. We picture movies of enormous scale with quests to save kingdoms or even the world. Genre classics such as The Dark Crystal and Stardust show lands and social structures that are totally made up (a.k.a. secondary world fantasy). But fantasy is a bigger genre than that and covers everything from epics like The Lord of the Rings to intimate flicks such as Like Water For Chocolate. What those two wildly different movies have in common is an escape from the laws of the natural world. While Science Fiction comes with baggage from the real world attached, fantasy promises that anything is possible. Let’s take a quick spin through five movies you might be surprised to learn fall into fantasy’s domain.

1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
I know, you’re thinking that the production design is teeming with mechanisms of brass and wood — “Look at the Nautilus,” you protest. “Surely this is scifi.” Ah, but look closer. There are multiple supernatural elements in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen too. Take Stuart Townsend’s picture of Dorian Gray, which keeps him young and invulnerable. That’s magic. Or turn to Peta Wison’s Mina Harker, who survived her encounter with Dracula but is now a vampire — vampires and magic and paintings, oh my! What you’re looking at is a form of fantasy called Steampunk, which features Victorian or Edwardian fashions with intricate steam-driven engines. Interestingly, the sub-genre almost always comes with a supernatural element. Remember: Just because there’s technology doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy.

2. Like Water for Chocolate (1993)
In Like Water for Chocolate, simple acts like cooking take on mythic proportions as they give outward expression to Tita’s (Lumi Cavazos) emotions. When she cooks a dinner with the roses that her lover gives her, the meal creates such passion in the guests that everyone is thrown into a frenzy of longing. While not specifically a spell, this heightened level of experience is a constant of magical realism. Stories told in this realm tend to be smaller in scale, revolving around a single person, yet containing an odd break from natural law. Something as small as a single tear in cake batter can set off a wave of melancholy. Suddenly, the ordinary becomes fantastic.

3. Shaolin Soccer (2001)
Here we don’t seem to have any of the trappings of traditional fantasy. Shaolin Soccer is set in present day China and the characters all have typical troubles: Unsatisfying jobs, annoying bosses, and the fear that technology is rapidly making them obsolete. But they also have magic. The Shaolin monks each wield what amounts to a sorcerer’s spell, ranging from “Golden Leg” to “Lightning Hands,” which allows them to break the laws of nature. Just watch one of their thrilling soccer matches and you’ll see what I mean. Gravity? What is this strange thing you speak of?

4. The Sixth Sense (1999)
While this movie has elements of horror, in many ways it is even more a dark urban fantasy. Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear has a sixth sense, one that ordinary humans don’t have. As the trailers say, he sees dead people, which you’ve got to admit is unusual. With all its ghosts, the film quickly crosses into the realm of the fantastic. The “sixth sense” is a power that would feel right at home in traditional fantasy, except in that scenario Cole would need to use it to save the world rather than just his own sanity. To top it off, the resolution at the end keeps the movie from being hardcore horror which would’ve left you hanging on your seat (and waiting for the inevitable straight-to-DVD sequel).

5. The Lake House (2006)
On the surface, this screams romance, but the gimmick here is, frankly, fantastic: Kate (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Keanu ‘woah’ Reeves) are separated in time by two years yet living in the same house. The only thing that connects them initially is the mailbox: Put a letter in and it appears two years later or earlier for the other person to retrieve. Sound familiar? Think of a certain magic wardrobe that would allow people to travel into a foreign land without much time passing on the homefront. Magic boxes, magic doors…these are memes of fantasy.

Since we’ve just skimmed the surface, why don’t you share some of your favorite examples of fantasy movies that aren’t often labeled as such?

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 columns appears Fridays.

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