Christmas as fantasy

A lot about Christmas looks like a fantasy story. Whether it’s the magic guy who comes down the chimney with presents, the otherworldly snow scenes in greetings cards, or the shared wish that just for one day we could make the ordinary world vanish. The original Christmas story has a lot to inspire fantasy authors too, whether it’s signs in the sky, the epic journey of the wise men, the chosen one born in the stable, the prophecies, the angels, or the villainous Herod.

My favourite Christmas fantasy story is a more modern one, at least by biblical standards. Narrated by a hook-nosed goblin-like creature of uncertain origin, featuring travel back through time, glimpses into the future, ghostly apparitions and talking animals, I watch it every year. It is of course the Muppets Christmas Carol.

Last year I was too ill to eat Christmas dinner, but I still managed to watch this fabulous tale. And in case you were considering not watching it this year, here’s a reminder of why you should:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBthi_An5qQ&w=560&h=315]

 

Because however hard they commercialise this time of year there’s still some fantasy in it that can lift us up. And after all it’s only five more sleeps ’til Christmas.

Watching Despicable Me 2 – genre in kids films

I went to see Despicable Me 2 at the weekend, and loved every moment of it. It’s one of those great fun kids movies that, like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, takes elements from sci-fi and fantasy and plays with them in completely unexpected ways. It got me thinking – why do these genre films for kids work so well for me?

One part is definitely the over-the-top characters. Anyone who’s seen me do drama or roleplay could tell you that I don’t go for subtle. I like characters who are wild and flamboyant and comically exaggerated. But I like them to be grounded just slightly in reality too. My character might be having absurd conversations with a corn dolly, but deep down he’ll be doing it to escape the horrors of war. The same thing happens in these films. Gru might be a cartoon super-villain, and Lucy an over-excited high-kicking secret agent, but beneath it are characters with relatable¬†feelings, going through familiar story arcs. We get to enjoy the cartoonish absurdity, freed from the limits of reasonable behaviour, without it feeling so distant and unreal as Tom and Jerry.

There’s a playfulness in the use of fantastic elements as well. These films worry less about making any kind of sense, and so the villain can plan to steal the moon, or the hero can turn rainclouds into food. It’s still following the genre logic of mad science, but casting aside the real world logic of science, economics, cause and effect. It frees up the ‘what ifs’ to allow things like Gru’s army of minions. See that in a grown-up film and you’d start asking why he hires these idiots, or how he pays them. Watch them in something like this and you’re just laughing at their antics.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYBw_o_2nG0&w=420&h=315]

 

That highlights an overall theme – because it’s created for kids, we’ll forgive it its plot holes. Something happened near the end of Despicable Me 2 that made me go ‘oh come on, you’ve not earned that’. But only for a moment. Then I shrugged, recognised it as inevitable, and got on with enjoying the film. I would not have been so forgiving for George Lucas.

Maybe as readers and viewers we should sometimes take this approach to other stories. Consistent story and realistic characters have their place, but letting those constraints go allows for the wild, the colourful, the new. If we’ll flock in our thousands to see that in kids’ films, why not in ‘grown-up’ works too?

Oh, and if you haven’t already, watch Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs – it’s a wonderful example of this stuff at work.