So with this we cross the halfway point in this series. This post is about those films which have supernatural or fantasy elements, but usually just as an excuse to have fun with a concept and have the main character learn an important life-lesson.
(Incidentally, this is #24 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
The standard formula is that the main character has some sort of personal flaw–usually their priorities are off and they don’t appreciate the more important things in life, like family, love or puppies. But then for some quickly discussed reason they go through a supernatural ordeal (the main subject of the movie) and eventually learns the error of their ways. In the meantime, the audience usually has lots of laughs (generally, these movies are light-hearted comedies).
The classic original story that fits this pattern is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, in which the miserly Scrooge is visited by a series of ghosts who show him how his life is currently on trajectory of doom and misery. It’s been adapted into film about a hundred times but I can’t really remember which versions I have seen (other than Scrooged with Bill Murray) so I’m not listing it here.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946 – directed by Frank Capra)
This holiday classic doesn’t fit the template that we’re talking about perfectly. The main character doesn’t have a particular flaw that needs adjusting, and the “fantasy experience” doesn’t take up the bulk of the film’s story, but still the basic idea is still in place: in a mostly natural world, an ordinary man experiences a supernatural experience which teaches him an important lesson. In this case, it’s George Bailey, an incredibly good and self-sacrificing man who comes under such tremendous pressure that he loses hope and decides to take his own life. But the prayers of his friends and family move heaven and leads to an angel coming to his aid. To help him, the angel allows George to see what the world would have been like if he had never been born. And so George learns not only the positive impact of his actions, but also to value his own life.
Groundhog Day (1993 – directed by Harold Ramis)
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a cynical weatherman who is finds himself in the bizarre circumstance where he is living the same day over and over again, and is the only one who is aware of it. To make matters worse, the day is a miserable one, where he’s been forced to spend a day in a small hick town to report on the festivities surrounding Groundhog Day. Similarly stories have been told many times, but rarely without any sort of explanation for what is going on (science fiction, mystical or otherwise). In the end, it all comes down to him breaking the cycle simply by learning his valuable lesson, that of embracing the bright outlook represented by the town and the co-worker he falls in love with, played by Andie MacDowell.
Liar, Liar (1997 – directed by Tom Shadyac)
Liar, Liar is a film about lawyer Fletcher Reede, who more-or-less lies for a living. When he fails to follow through on a promise to his young son Max, Max makes a birthday wish which results in Fletcher being unable to lie for the day. This of course leads to all sorts of complications in his life, milking Jim Carrey’s comic potential. But in the midst of all of that there’s a heartwarming story to be told, as Fletcher learns a valuable lesson on the importance of commitment and family.
The Kid (2000 – directed by Jon Turtletaub)
This is perhaps one of the lesser known examples of this formula, but it’s one of my favorites. Bruce Willis plays an image consultant who is obsessed only with…surprise!…success. His valuable lesson comes when all of a sudden he receives an unexpected visitation from a kid, being his own self as a ten year old. Ten year old Russ has no idea how he got there, but he’s pretty disappointed to discover that in the future, he’s single, concerned only with image and money, and has no dog. The older Russ, for his part, is embarrassed by the presence of his overweight, dorky younger self. Hilarity and heartwarming lessons ensue. It’s an absurd premise that works thanks to some likeable performances from Willis, Spencer Breslin and Emily Mortimer as Willis’ potential girlfriend (if only he can get his act together).
Bruce Almighty / Evan Almighty (2003 / 2007 – both directed by Tom Shadyac)
Tom Shadyac strikes again…with two films for the price of one. Bruce Almighty is about God (Morgan Freeman) visiting Jim Carrey and sharing his power with him when Bruce thinks he is not doing a good job. Bruce learns a valuable lesson about love and humility. The sequel, Evan Almighty, is about God coming again and giving Evan the job of building an ark (just like Noah). Evan learns a valuable lesson about spending time with his family and caring for the environment…but he also helps to save his town from a flood caused by a faulty dam. Both films are enjoyable romps around the premise, with Bruce being more of a romantic comedy and Evan being more of a family adventure. Good times.
Considered but Rejected: The Family Man with Nicholas Cage, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past with Matthew McConaughey, 13 Going on 30 with Jennifer Garner, and A Thousand Words with Eddie Murphy (though I liked the whole thing of it building up to him telling his dead father that he forgives him). I forgot about Big, which is definitely about an odd fantasy event, but I don’t know if I’d say it’s about a character learning a valuable life lesson.
Full Disclosure: I’ve never seen Peggy Sue Got Married or Scott Pilgrim (which one friend said would fit this idea).