The lure of the unreal
Moviegoers still get caught up in otherworldly tales. What's the allure?
From the spookiness of "Signs" to the old-fashioned wizardry of "The Lord of the Rings," the long-lasting trend is clear. Comedy and action still draw crowds, but fantasy is the genre of choice for filmmakers and audiences who want to tap into cinema's most imaginative possibilities.Skip to next paragraph
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At one end of the spectrum are sword-and-sorcery sagas set in exotic places. At the other end are science-fiction stories, which are more grounded in reality, but use their futuristic technologies as perfunctory backdrops for magical adventures. Some pundits think the wave of fantasy filmmaking will subside, especially if war movies continue to grow in popularity following the Sept. 11 attacks and new anxieties arise over safety and security. Enthusiasm for pictures like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers" suggests some truth here.
But others feel the apprehensions caused by Sept. 11 are giving fantastic films more appeal than ever.
Film and the fantastic have a long history together. Fantasies danced on screens a century ago, when magician-turned-director Georges Méliès filled early nickelodeons with pictures like "Summoning the Spirits" and "The Phrenologist and the Lively Skull." He turned to the past for many of his ideas and images borrowing from literature, painting, and other art forms.
Méliès's influence remains strong on modern moviemakers. Look at the goofy adventures in "Men in Black II" and you'll see the same mixture of outlandish whimsy and extroverted cinematic tricks.
What explains the enduring marriage between film and fantasy? One answer is the nature of cinema itself. Movies are real and unreal at the same time, lifelike visions made from flickers of ephemeral light. They're a perfect medium for stories that want to reflect and transcend the everyday world.
Nobody understands this better than George Lucas, whose digitally enhanced "Attack of the Clones" came closer than any previous movie to erasing the boundaries between film as photography of the real world, on one hand, and film as technological dream state, on the other.
Fantasies flourished for millenniums before cinema was invented, though, so factors rooted deeply in human nature are clearly at work.
Some people get so caught up in otherworldly tales that they lose sight of what's actual and what's not as "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling proved when she told an interviewer she's received many letters addressed to the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sent by youngsters who hope she'll pass them along to headmaster Dumbledore.
Harry's personality carries a clue to the popularity of tales like his. He's a likable boy, and by the standards of traditional fantasy, he's a believable, three-dimensional character.
More important, he's as ordinary as the rest of us setting aside the wizards in his family tree and his all-too-human traits make him something of an underdog. Magic and enchantment give him extraordinary abilities we'd all love to have, and by reading or viewing his adventures, we share vicariously in his ability to tap mystical sources of mastery and power. What worked for the Brothers Grimm still works for Rowling and her contemporary colleagues.
In his own unpretentious way, Harry is what folklorists call an archetype a character who represents an ideal image of a personality or idea, and may carry lessons inherited from the turbulent history of human existence.
Other characters who fit this description are Frodo the hobbit, just about everyone in the "Star Wars" saga, and even Austin Powers, with or without his mojo. And don't forget Pinocchio, who inspired last year's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" and returns to the screen this Christmas in Roberto Benigni's retelling of his story.
Pinocchio's quest to become a "real boy" is a metaphor for our desire to enter fantasy-fiction worlds that make our own lives feel larger, more colorful, somehow "realer" than they normally seem.