From Pan’s Labyrinth to Paddington, this storytelling technique makes watching some movies just a little more extraordinary.
The beauty of storytelling is that it often reminds us of things we perhaps already know, but often forget. By looking through a new lens, we tend to see our world a lot more clearly. One way of doing this is by adding a dose of magic to an otherwise familiar world, a technique also known as magical realism—in other words, it’s our world, but magic is used as a tool to help us understand it better. While it may require some suspension of disbelief, it is often well worth it.
While magical realism is an on-the-rise device in film, it actually finds its roots in Latin American literature. One of the key major players in its popularization is Gabriel García Márquez with his novel “100 Years of Solitude,” which was an instant success. Other authors that have contributed greatly to its success as a genre in literature are Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende, the latter of which wrote the instant best-seller “The House of Spirits.” These are only some of the key developers of this storytelling tool in literature. So how did magical realism make its way into the world of film?
The device started appearing most significantly around the late 1980s and early 1990s in film, the tradition still tracing back to its Latin American roots with films such as Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, based on the novel by Laura Esquivel. It was Mexico’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 65thAcademy Awards and became the highest-grossing Spanish language film in the United States at the time.
Other Latin American filmmakers have continued to incorporate this device in film, one of the most prominent being writer-director Guillermo del Toro. His 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth is exemplary of this. The film takes place in Spain five years after the Spanish Civil War, and the young protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her terminally ill mother move in with her stepfather, a cruel captain. Forced to grow up in a world of torture and brutality, Ofelia discovers a labyrinth where she meets a faun who delegates three necessary tasks to be completed. The fantastic elements serve as a parallel to the harsh realist setting she lives in. In the labyrinth’s representation of nature and Ofelia’s coming-of-age, these magical elements are used to further the audience’s understanding of the story’s themes of morality and consequences.
More recently, del Toro has delved into the world of magical realism again for his 2017 awards hit The Shape of Water. The film follows the lives of those who could be considered marginalized individuals, with Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a government lab, at the center of the story. For all intents and purposes, the film takes place in an ordinary Baltimore circa 1962, despite the presence of the ‘amphibian man’ that is brought into the government lab whom Elisa comes to fall in love with. By introducing this foreign creature to the audience and allowing us to see him as Elisa does, we come to see the common oppression of the Other with new eyes, and what it means to love someone for who they truly are.
Another great entry from a Mexican director is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman, which follows a faded actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). He is best known for his role as the beloved superhero “Birdman,” a character that constantly haunts him as he tries to re-establish his glory in a more ‘respected’ way through his own Broadway production. The elements of magical realism can mostly be found through Riggan’s connection to his superhero past, a character who becomes his alter-ego of sorts. There are moments in the film where Riggan physically transforms into Birdman, which helps to communicate the inflated sense of ego and narcissism that overtakes the character.
In the early 2000s, magical realism began finding itself also incorporated into films from non-Latin American filmmakers, as well. One example is Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, the tale of a shy young woman who one day has a revelation that her path in life is inevitably to be a do-gooder. Amélie goes through life with a sense of whimsicality, which is brought about by brief moments of magic or surrealness (such as paintings watching her movements or Amélie literally melting into a puddle at the sight of Nino, her love interest). The use of magical realism helps the audience to better understand the mind of Amélie, and we become truly immersed in the world as she sees it.
Another film from this time to make clever use of magical realism is the cult classic Donnie Darko from director Richard Kelly, which is used in combination with elements of science fiction. Donnie Darko makes complex use of this device, which follows its title character (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who narrowly escapes death thanks to an ominous giant bunny named Frank. The line between fiction and reality is often blurred throughout the movie, and it can be hard to tell what is merely a product of Donnie’s mind. Many arguments can be made as to the true meaning of the film’s events, but its surreal qualities once again contribute to an understanding of the lead protagonist’s state of mind.
While Edgar Wright’s loveable Scott Pilgrim vs. the World might not immediately come to mind as a typical example of magical realism, it most definitely can be considered as such. Based on a series of comic books, the film follows slacker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) on his mission to win the heart of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—but in order to do so, he must defeat her seven evil exes. It features hyperbolic humor and video-game stylization (if Scott defeats one of Ramona’s exes, they physically turn into a pile of coins). While many surrealist and fantastical elements are utilized, they are used to emphasize the film’s realist theme of idealization in romance.
Following in a thematically similar vein is Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Ruby Sparks. Novelist Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is struggling with writer’s block when he stumbles upon the idea of a fictional girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). The more Calvin writes about Ruby, the more he falls in love with her. But one day, Calvin wakes up to find Ruby in the flesh living in his home. While the premise is one that cannot logically happen, the film’s characters accept it as part of reality quickly enough. The magical realism used here promotes the dangers of idealization and the desire to control in a relationship.
A widely beloved instance of magical realism in film is Paul King’s Paddington films. The films follow a young anthropomorphic bear trying to make a life for himself in typical modern-day London (despite the fact that talking bears are apparently an accepted norm, but hey, that’s part of the beauty of magical realism). The Paddington films may seem to have a silly or childish premise to some, but the positioning of Paddington’s character in a contemporary urban society has helped the films successfully tackle themes of xenophobia, discrimination, displacement, and adoption with style and grace—an impressive feat for any film to achieve.
Magical realism has played a role in contemporary television, as well. Reverting back to its Latin American roots, the hit Netflix series Narcos has elements of magical realism embedded within and opens with a title card that reads as follows: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”
Another series that incorporates magical realism is CW’s Jane the Virgin (also heavily weighted with Latin American influence). The show’s protagonist Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) is often met with hints of magic in her daily life, whether it be an altered version of herself providing her with advice or an image coming to life and speaking to her. This incorporation of magical realism is even referenced with a novel that Jane writes—her character notes her dismay at the fact that critics didn’t seem to understand her reference to this tradition.
What is perhaps most important to recognize about magical realism is that it shows us the creative ways in which stories can help us to better understand the very world we live in. In an odd way, it makes sense—sometimes we need something completely unfamiliar to help shift our perspectives. As these stories continue to be told, perhaps they will make our own world feel just a little more magical.