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Fantasy films can often be a ‘forbidden realm’ for many film buffs; a dirty word for consumers of an array of fiction. At its worst, Fantasy is about unpronouncable character names, over-complicated criss-crossing, four-hour story arcs and special effects at the expense of everything else. At its best, fantasy is about addressing reality in the friendliest possible terms.
So I’m going to focus on my preferred sub-genre of fantasy today; the coming of age allegory. The what? Let me explain…
On a basic level, all of the films which I have in mind are imaginative, tell a good story and are good fun for the kids. What’s even better, though, is when you revisit these films as a comparative grown up and realise that they can be read on a slightly deeper level… however heavy-handed that deeper level may be!
The original and most classic example of this coming-of-age sub-genre is The Wizard of Oz (1939). Dorothy is iconic because of her over-identifiable desire to escape the sepia boredom of her existence and go “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Although played flawlessly by a sixteen year old Garland, Dorothy is very much a fragile little girl who is coming to term with the cruelties of life (her heart immediately goes out to the chicks being bundled out of their broken incubator and, of course, to her poor misunderstood Toto). As revealed by her dreams, Dorothy is also having some slightly ‘off’ fantasies about the farmhands under her aunt and uncle’s employ. This need for escape for someone on the threshold of adolescence (staring into the abyss of hormones and scared to leap!) is also a trope that is used in Alice in Wonderland film adaptations, particularly the 1999 version directed by Nick Willing, in which Alice is running away from having to perform a public recitation of “Cherry Ripe”, or Tim Burton’s 2010 version in which she is running away from marriage.
Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) deals with a girl who can’t break from her fantasy world, who indulges in solo cosplay, before cosplay was cool, and is constantly frustrated by her parent’s demands; namely that she babysit her little brother (maternal anxieties, anyone?) Through Sarah’s journey – and all of these coming-of-age stories are really about ‘journeys’ – the film shows her confronting her responsibly, as well as indulging in a particular yet somehow understandable date-rape fantasy about Jareth the Goblin King. At least he wasn’t a farmhand.
The most telling scene is when Sarah, beautifully played by Jennifer Connelly, is nearly foiled by one of the Goblin King’s many tricks. She believes she has found her way back home and is in her own bedroom, until midway through smearing lipstick across her mouth she realises that her most valuable possessions (bunny rabbit, Besty Boo, her pencil box and panda slippers etc) are in fact just “junk” in a junkyard. The final emotional blow comes at the film’s conclusion, when Sarah’s imaginary friends reappear to remind her that they are always there, “Should you need us.” Her response is moving, “I don’t know why but, every now and then in my life, for no reason at all, I need you. All of you.” This is the final nail in the emotional coffin as the audience are reassured that our childhood is still there to retreat to, when we have need.
Other films have a slightly different focus on other coming-of-age issues. Legend (1985) certainly has moments where Sarah’s Bowie sex-dream is mirrored by Lili’s temptation by the Lord of Darkness, Tim Curry himself. ‘Temptation’ is the correct buzz word for the main theme of Ridley’s Scott’s aesthetically spiffing film. It is essentially a retelling of a woman committing original sin; only instead of biting into a piece of fruit, Lili touches a pretty unicorn. All hell breaks loose and Lili (short for Lilith, perhaps…) is abducted by Curry’s satanic villain. What follows is an awful lot of stuff and nonsense involving Tom Cruise’ character, but Mia Sara’s sections as Lili are extremely watchable as she dances her way over to the dark side in a parable of sexual awakening and corruption by a variety of shiny, pretty things.
The Neverendng Story (1984) is an anomaly in that it focuses on a male protagonist, and probably the youngest of the featured characters, too. Bastian is coming to terms with the death of his mother and, hiding in the attic of his school, reads a tale about Atreyu, a young warrior on a quest to save the life of the land’s Childlike Empress. The most powerful part of this narrative is when Atreyu loses his horse Artax in the Swamp of Sadness. The camera cut to Bastian’s tear streaked face as he looks up from reading makes the connection between the narratives clear and is… reasonably heartbreaking. Incidentally, the original book on which the film is based is the closest in terms of how it has been adapted to film and is well worth a read. It’s printed in different colours and everything.
The final film for consideration is Dave McKean’s 2005 film Mirrormask, in which Helena grows tired of familial pressures only for her mother to become ill. Helena’s mother is played by Gina McKee, and in a ‘mirror’ world, she also plays the roles of the Queen of Light (who is ill and also needs magically resuscitating) and her nemesis, the Queen of Shadows. What’s more, Helena also has a double, the Anti-Helena, who she must watch misbehaving in all sorts of typically adolescent ways as she masquerades as her, back in the real world. These doubles serve to effectively highlight the binary nature of most young girl’s relationships with their parents, as well as the binary nature of… well… everyone… Through her journey to save the Queen of Light, and her observations of how the Anti-Helena is behaving back in her own world, Helena comes to appreciate her life and her loved ones, in much the same way that Dorothy Gale realises on waking that there really is “No place like home.”
So we’ve come full circle… As previously mentioned, these films are hugely entertaining for younger audiences and yet, the young-uns don’t take the helpful advice being offered to them by these films, blissfully unaware as they are that what they are watching is there own life future being foretold by munchkins and mirrormasks. What is offered to older views is a sort of retrospective nostalgia for the angst that they once had, and this nostalgia is offered to us through the medium we little girls feel most comfortable with, the fairytale.