Total Recall

Total Recall: The Golden Compass and Kids in Fantasyland

Another world is possible: The Flight of Dragons, Alice, and The Pagemaster.

by | December 5, 2007 | Comments

After a series of delays and personnel changes, the first
part of
Phillip Pullman
‘s His Dark Materials trilogy,

The Golden Compass
, arrives in theaters this Friday. Starring
Nicole Kidman,
Eva Green,
Daniel Craig,
and newcomer

Dakota Blue Richards
, Golden Compass serves as an introduction to a
sprawling ambitious story of daemons, polar bear fights, and parallel worlds.
Let’s take a look at some other fantasy flicks of its ilk that have come before
it.

Like the

Narnia chronicles
, the

Harry Potters
,
Bridge to
Terabithia
, and the upcoming
Spiderwick
Chronicles
, the His Dark Materials trilogy joins a spate of young
adult entertainments whose characters discover extraordinary worlds beyond their
own. To us, the appeal of these alternative worlds, parallel universes, and
lands long gone from existence is obvious. When children are cultivated for
education from infancy (curse you, Baby Einsteins!) and material
distractions crop up on a daily basis, who wouldn’t want their inner fantabulist
entertained?  Though discovering new worlds is hardly a new enterprise
(remember your first
Trip to the
Moon
?), we’ll start in the 1980s when children’s and medieval fantasy
ruled the theaters.


In 1982, Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass released two
animated fantasy movies. One of them,
The Last Unicorn

(50 percent on the Tomatometer), eventually hit cult classic status and earlier
this year got the deluxe DVD treatment. The other film,
The Flight of
Dragons
, wasn’t quite as lucky and languishes in overpriced VHS
purgatory. Based on the book of the same name by Peter Dickinson and The
Dragon and the George
by Gordon Dickson, Flight spins the yarn of a
scientist named Peter who spends his nights designing and hocking board games
before being transported 770 generations into the past where magic is beginning
to weaken. There, Peter meets wizards, princesses, and dragons identical to the
pieces he’s designed for his latest board game.

Fantasy stories hosts plenty of tug-of-wars between
technology and magic, but The Flight of Dragons takes this motif to a
peculiar extreme. As a man well-versed in logic and science, Peter attempts
observing how a world of magic works and the film gives a lengthy biology lesson
on how dragons fly. (Indeed, The Flight of Dragons book is written as a
cross between speculative fiction and natural history guide.) While characters
in books and films like these are willing to be instantly awed by new worlds,
Peter (admittedly something of a wet blanket) always buckles down for the truth,
becoming a sort of messiah offering the gift of logic.



The Flight of Dragons opening.


It’s way too easy to think of The Golden Compass as
typical prepubescent entertainment, despite a PG-13 rating and heady subject
matter. In that regard, of the three films featured in this Total Recall,
Golden Compass
is most similar to
Alice
(100 percent): they’re
deceptively innocent and surprisingly mature. Released in 1988 and directed by
stop-motion maestro
Jan Svankmajer,
Alice is by far the bleakest cinematic adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books.  As
the titular Alice,
Kristýna
Kohoutová
portrays the only human character; the rest of the world is
populated with dolls, mannequins, and sharp objects brought to life by
Svankmajer’s deft manipulating hand. A hypnotically sad and harrowing film,
Washington Post
‘s Hal Hinson claims Alice "takes us back to a time in
the history of movies when audiences responded to the images on screen with a
combination of awe and fear, when in submitting to them, we felt as if we were
submitting to a spell."

Though Disney’s version of
Alice in
Wonderland
(77 percent), which emphasizes Carroll’s light-hearted
whimsy, has dominated culture for generations, others have seen a sinister edge
to the story. In addition to Svankmajer, American McGee’s 2000 video game,
Alice
,
features the heroine embarking on a violent journey through Wonderland after
being institutionalized. A film adaptation has been long in the works, currently
being slated for release in July 2008 starring
Sarah
Michelle Gellar
and directed by
Marcus Nispel.



Alice meets the Queen of Hearts.


There are few working relationships more fruitful than the
one between movies and books. The two frequently draw inspiration from each
other. The book usually ends up better, but the movie makes more money. And in
1994, the latest book image enhancement project came in the form of
The Pagemaster
.
In his final year before his extended acting hiatus,
Macaulay Culkin
starred as a peerlessly wimpy boy who takes refuge from a storm in a musty
library. There, he meets
Christopher
Lloyd
, playing a (what else?) eccentric who entices him into the world of
books. Subsequently, Culkin is sucked into an animated world inspired by works
like Treasure Island. Yeah, it’s no surprise that by the end he’ll learn
strength, courage, and make a few new friends along the way, in a movie Walter
Chaw of Film Freak Central calls "a nice starting point for an important
conversation with your child about why so many cartoons think children are
stupid."

Fine, so it has a 20 percent Tomatometer. And its title
sounds like a Microsoft Word plug-in. But the movie has a goofy, square charm to
it and there’s fun to be had with The Pagemaster as long as you’re not
comparing it to book-centric masterpieces like
The Princess Bride

(95 percent) or
The NeverEnding Story
(82 percent).



Rescued by pirates.

Then there are fantasy films that are both critical and box
office successes. Films like
Spirited Away

(97 percent), Pan’s
Labyrinth
(96 percent), or even

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
(89 percent) that have people
retreating or falling into extraordinary worlds. Their popularity is hardly
accidental: escapism is virtually the foundation
upon which movies are built. They get us out of the house and into darkened
rooms for hours and hours.

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