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For those of you that don’t know, I nearly died in my final year of uni trying to find and write an original film theory at undergrad level – but I did it. Here is a snippet of what I managed to do, for film studies geeks everywhere.

FANTASY AND FAMILY: HOW FANTASY FILMS DEPICT DOMESTIC DISCORD THROUGH ESCAPISM AND FANTASY REALMS IN JIM HENSON’S LABYRINTH (1986), WOLFGANG PETERSON’S THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984) AND SPIKE JONZE’S WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (2009)

Abstract

This dissertation will provide a study into how fantasy films depict domestic discord through escapism and fantasy realms in Wolfgang Peterson’s The NeverEnding Story (1984), Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009). These films have been selected firstly, because these are all films featuring elements of the fantastic, and secondly, due to their narrative focus on a single child who only has one biological parent in their domestic sphere because of separation or death. Each film discussed in this dissertation features one child leaving reality and entering a fantasy realm, with an unspoken understanding to accept their domestic discord. Once their quest is over, the child is returned to the understood reality with a new understanding of their conflicts and how to overcome them. The child is able to accept that fantasy and escapism are appropriate in small measures; this is usually shown by merging the fantasy realm or the ideals of the fantasy realm into the understood reality in the final scene. It will argue that the fantasy realm is a metaphorical safety-net in which the child can retreat to and face their subconscious anxieties, emerging mature and accepting of their new family circumstances.

Introduction

“As one of humanities most powerful coping systems, fantasies are by no means unambiguous in their value for personal maturation. They do relate us meaningfully to the internal and external world, they prepare us for the future and enable us to come to terms with the past and present, they let us imagine our own death and the death of others, but fantasies also crystallize and stereotype feelings. Persons and experiences can be obstacles when the biological or psychological survival of the process is at stake.”[1]

It is important to note that fantasy as a genre is debated due to its ambiguity. Many films explore the fantastic and/or feature alternate landscapes; this is most commonly seen horror and science fiction. Vivian Sobchack argues that fantasy follows a clear narrative, regardless of the genre it is featured in, i.e. horror and SF. Sobchack concludes that fantasy: “Constructs alternative -‘fantastic’-worlds and tells stories of impossible experiences that defy rational logic and currently known empirical laws.”[2] It is therefore appropriate to class Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and Where The Wild Things Are as films that feature the fantastic within their narrative as they all contain alternate worlds, impossible experiences and defy the logic of reality when each protagonist enters an alien world. Kathryn Hume defines the narrative of a fantasy film as: “Any departure from consensus reality.”

When Hume’s theory is applied to the films in question, the reality introduced at the beginning of each narrative is a familiar domestic situation and is set in a location that resembles the audiences known reality, which will be known in this study as ‘the understood reality.’[3]The films are not horror or SF as they do not follow the basic conventions of either genre. They are fantasy films aimed at children, and the fantasy takes place within the child’s imagination.  Peter Nichols simplifies fantasy and elements of the fantastic, he argues that regardless of the context, each fantasy narrative has one consistent feature: “A fantasy film must contain a miracle…the kind of miracle does not matter. What does matter is that at the film’s heart there is some sort of magic.”[4]  While it is difficult to define the fantasy genre, it is possible to argue that a fantasy film must feature something that is not possible in everyday life.

The chosen films all feature something impossible to every day life; they distinguish between fantasy and the understood reality with the suggestion of domestic discord that the child cannot accept or understand. Once the child is away from the understood reality and in the fantasy realm, they encounter problems extremely similar to their domestic afflictions and overcome them.

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