Fantasy remains one of the great cornerstones in storytelling, from literature to modern cinema, and stands out as cinema’s most escapist medium. They teeter on the edges of reality or reveal reality as not quite as boring as you think.
Hollywood’s silent era began to introduce fantastical elements into an already mysterious, captivating medium. George Méliès’ famous A Trip to the Moon (1902) is highly influential, along with Fritz Lang’s short Die Nibelungen (1924) series; a predecessor to his seminal sci-fi/fantasy Metropolis (1927).
The advent of sound and vibrant technicolor brought The Wizard of Oz (1939), with Dorothy’s native Kansas portrayed in black and white before she is whisked to the outrageous and colorful land of Oz.
Animation had the natural abilities to build incredible, fantastical worlds, with Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), and Peter Pan (1953). The Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli continually pushes the boundaries of fantasy to consistent critical acclaim with Hayao Miyazaki‘s Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), and My Neighbor Totoro (1988).
Fairy tales could now be brought to life, and the possibilities were endless for cinema with the rapid development of new technologies, from stop-motion and advanced prosthetics to the digital era and 3D.
With superheroes hailed as modern-day mythology, Marvel has created a rich cinematic universe for its vast array of characters. The Harry Potter (2001-2011), Star Wars (1977-present), and Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) universes also continue to grow outside their centralized conflicts into spin-offs or prequels. Audiences’ thirst for mythology is continually offered new characters, worlds, and timelines.
Mystical beings and magic supplement what is naturally classic storytelling with familiar goals and conflicts. Gatekeepers and shapeshifting enemies become more literal obstacles, as strange worlds are navigated by new arrivals or those ‘chosen’ to make a difference. They are mentored to fight the ultimate evil of the story in order to return to their normality. Except nothing will ever be normal again.
Of course, Film by definition is fantasy. But it’s when real life’s problems and insecurities are characterized by something, or someone, fantastical that new worlds come alive. Fantasy engulfs action, romance, science-fiction, horror, and animation, to create normality housed in abnormality.
Antagonists chase power, and with the struggle for power comes temptation. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the seductive powers of the One Ring take hold over the obsessive Golem and draw trouble towards Frodo at every turn. Magic is there for personal development as much as it is to match up with the antagonists. Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker both must learn to embrace their destinies and control their power for the good of everyone.
Tales of rescuing princesses are pivotal storytelling elements, but can also feel rather one-dimensional without sufficient character development on both sides. In Shrek (2001), a classic fairy tale with a twist, Princess Fiona wants to be rescued by a brave knight, only for the ogre Shrek to show up. She wants her ‘happily ever after’, while on the surface Shrek wants nothing more than his swamp back. Neither gets what they want until they embrace who they really are; Fiona learns to love her form as an ogre to live happily with Shrek, who finds his acceptance. In Star Wars, Princess Leia is another good example of someone in peril who grows substantially to take care of herself and fight alongside her ‘rescuers’.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Seventh Seal (1957) tackle death and the afterlife in ways perhaps highlighting a typical divide in tone between the arguably more mainstream sensibilities of director Michael Powell, and Swedish counterpart Ingmar Bergman. With A Matter of Life and Death seeing Peter Carter arguing for his life in a celestial court, The Seventh Seal’s Antonius Block, a knight from the Crusades, plays a game of chess with the Grim Reaper himself. Bergman’s film uses fantasy to raise the question of whether life really has any value at all, with the middle ages’ Black Death serving as an allegory for the atomic bomb.
While death is not an uncommon theme to explore in any aspect of cinema, fantasy movies provide that platform to explore the afterlife as its own world, as an explicit experience. Tim Burton‘s Beetlejuice (1988) combines bureaucracy with the grotesque to create a strange and humorous sense of familiarity to otherwise completely outrageous circumstances.
Codes and Conventions
Laden with allegorical obstacles and heroes fighting for the elixir to overcome their flaw, the conventions typically followed are drawn directly from mythology. Evil is drawn from magic and defeated by the pure of heart. The Ancient Greek mythologies of Clash of the Titans (1981/2010) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) show us worlds inhabited by gods and monsters, and the endless struggle for humanity to overcome the fantastical.
Just as a degree of artistic license was taken in the act of passing down folklore, fantasy lends itself perfectly to be drawn into the absurd, and as a platform for the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) to tackle one of the great historical legends.
Fantasy also provides a natural cross-over for science-fiction and the supernatural, typically taking on a more adult-orientated identity, but keeping a structural identity and its character archetypes. Star Wars is knights and magic in ‘a galaxy far far away’, filled with peril and mentors and triumph of good over evil.
The rag-tag team assembling on a quest to defeat a common enemy is an endlessly reusable trope spanning The Wizard of Oz, to The Lord of the Rings, to The Avengers (2012). They are folklore inside immersive worlds, with very human problems portrayed by otherworldly creatures.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Mary Poppins (1964) notably combine ‘reality’ with the cartoon world, branching out respectively to film noir and musical. In the context of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, it’s nothing unusual, but the element is there to highlight what’s essentially a discriminatory divide when Roger is thrown together with Valiant. Fantasy is a much more explicit means to address and understand real-world cultural differences.
Big Fish (2003) tackles the divide between reality and fantasy worlds with Will Bloom seeking the truth behind his father Ed’s elaborate tall tales, which have frustrated him his whole life. But underneath it all, it’s about Will coming to terms with Ed’s mortality and learning just how loved his father was. It takes digging into the fantasy stories from Ed’s past for Will to get a very real sense of closure and understanding.
The fantasy worlds can be nothing more than a fever dream or a child-like interpretation of real-life horrors, but the reality is relative. After all, The Truman Show (1998) is a fantasy world for all but one character.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) blends fantasy and horror in parallel to the very real horrors of the Spanish civil war, entwining them to nightmarish effect. The labyrinth is a fantastical escape for Ofelia, who herself is very much introverted into the world of books. The Kingdom awaiting Ofelia, as the Faun puts it: “an underground world with no lies or pain.” Up in the real world, there is nothing but lies and pain. Her quest is thwarted by temptation, and her sacrifice is only brought around when the real world evil of Captain Vidal closes in. The mirrored commentary on the war makes for an esoteric experience alongside Ofelia’s journey towards her destiny. Her reward for the real-world horrors she endures is life as a fantasy princess.
With the typical fantasy narrative set within a physical journey, it becomes a right of passage, and a means for children to discover their independence and power, notable in Alice in Wonderland, Labyrinth (1986), Pan’s Labyrinth, and Harry Potter. A fairytale simplicity attaches these characters to Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood archetypes, they are long-lost princesses of the realm, or those prophesied to bring peace.
The internal storytelling of The Princess Bride (1987) is an elaborate, fantastical tale, all for The Grandson to learn about love. It takes until the end of Westley’s journey for The Grandson to truly understand, and to want to hear about the kiss he had previously dismissed.
Tim Burton directs the uniquely artistic visions of Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland (2010), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) in incredibly visual, dark, and mischievous sensibilities. It’s often even art over narrative, but his worlds are always meticulously realized and governed by the rules of fantasy.
Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm (2005), The Fisher King (1991), Time Bandits (1981), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)) often brings themes of identity to the forefront of his films, with strange, disenchanted characters who want to be normal.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli fantasies are notable for their coming of age journeys set against themes of sympathy, pacifism, and loyalty.
Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Princess Bride, Stardust (2007), Willow (1988), Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, The Neverending Story (1984), Enchanted (2007), The Seventh Seal.