They run the gamut, from epic film franchises, such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the seemingly interminable Star Wars series, to one time mind-bending hallucinations like Adaptation and Metropolis. Of all movie genres, none presents as blank a slate to the filmmaker as the fantasy genre. The best of the lot go further than dressing up a standard good guys vs. bad guys plot with otherworldly characters and settings. They fracture time and space, reference our libraries of mythology and ethics, and take us far outside – or inside – of our hopes, our dreams and nightmares.
Filmed fantasies slyly teach us about ourselves which is likely the reason so many are adapted into philosophical parables we tell our children. They imagine world’s where both affection and fear are immediate and overpowering, and where humor effortlessly shines in some of the most absurd – even the darkest – situations.
It is also the genre that arguably displays true gender parity – we are mesmerized by the the power and influence of female characters like Morgana in the Arthurian legends or Wonder Woman just as much as we are entranced by the antics of Han Solo or Pinocchio.
Fantasy represents the dreams and nightmares that we share to make sense of a difficult and dangerous world. Here are five that imagine the unimaginable:
El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) – Guillermo del Toro (2007)
That del Toro is the contemporary master of the fantasy genre is unquestionable –he has become the 21st Century version of the brothers Grimm. He also produced and wrote this post Spanish Civil War tale, which is as dark, brutal and, ultimately, as magical as any classic fairy tale that has been retold for centuries. It has all the elements – the young girl and her fantasy world, the evil stepfather, mythical creatures and a set of three tasks. What makes this special is the fullness of the backstory of a world so harsh that it can only be dealt with through phantasmagorical eyes. And what eyes del Toro provides – his vision mixes the horrors of war with the imagination of a child dealing with them. The works of Goya and Picasso’s Guernica trod the same ground with their unflinching imagery of the effects of war, and this modern classic stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonze (1999)
I wish Jonze made more features, especially when he’s paired with writer Charlie Kaufman. Together they drill into the maze of our psyches, wreaking havoc such as they do with “poor” John Malkovich here. It’s an inner mind adventure that examines, twists, pokes in ways we never see – hell, most of us can’t imagine – where a failed puppeteer discovers a portal into a movie star’s mind. That does not even begin to describe the frolics that ensue in this shock-and-awe script that is one of the most original screenplays ever written. John Cusack is the meddler, ably supported by Catherine Keener and a totally un-glam Cameron Diaz, while a good-natured and self-deprecating Malkovich plays himself as he tries to regain control of his mind. Imaginative fun that surprises at every turn.
Excalibur – John Boorman (1981)
Over 70 films based on the same Arthurian Legend that has been examined and interpreted in every medium from literature and art to musical theatre and television. Boorman gives us a very mystical (and very adult-oriented) version, full of magic, philosophy and seduction that is based primarily on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (written in 1485). With considerable visual assistance from cinematographer Alex Thomson, we are presented with the well-known story of idealism mixed with sorcery in stunningly bravura fashion. Helen Mirren, Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson and Nicholas Clay play the leads, but the film was also the career launchpad for a generation of Irish actors including Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Ciaran Hinds and Gabriel Byrne. Who ever said mythology can’t be lush, sexy, and inspiring?
Cloud Atlas – The Wachowskis & Tom Tywker (2012)
David Mitchell’s tale of six interwoven stories proposing that individuals’ actions are interconnected across the centuries and continents was deemed as “unfilmable,” but, thankfully, that is not a condition that either Tywker or the Wachowskis seem to recognize. Using a troop of actors playing four to six characters each across time, race and gender lines, the film has pretty much everything – romance, comedy, adventure, discovery, politics, science fiction, artistic struggles…even a hint of cannibalism, all set to a glorious score anchored in the Cloud Atlas Sextet. We leap from story to story and back again, landing into situations already in progress from 1849 to 2321. This is a Chicago-style pizza of a movie – thick, messy and totally satisfying – that polarized audiences and critics, but I believe it will stand the test of time and become regarded as one of the most ambitious and uplifting films ever made.
La belle et la bête (Beauty & the Beast) – Jean Cocteau (1946)
As good as they are, the Disney versions can’t hold a candelabra to Cocteau’s dreamily brilliant version of this 18th Century fairy tale. Cocteau was primarily a poet, and his film is visual poetry that inventively captures both dread and magic by way of imagery that surpasses any animated or CGI-assisted contemporary retelling of the familiar story. In addition to the sumptuous production values, there is a subtle, adult layer of desire working its way through the fairytale elements that make the tale appealing to all age groups without pandering to any. Cocteau’s companion of 25 years, actor Jean Marais, does triple duty as the Beast, the Prince, and a suitor to Josette Day’s Belle. Cocteau was nearly 60 when he made his version of this “tale as old as time”, his first feature length film, and his maturity and vast experience as avant-garde poet, playwright, artist, set designer, and director imbue a simple fairytale with depth and incomparable beauty.
Things that go bump – be they monsters, phantoms or unreal worlds where we find ourselves in times of trouble – help us cope, explain and, in the final analysis, survive. They all are truly the stuff that dreams are made of.