Come away O human child
To the waters and the wild
With a fairy hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.
— W.B. Yeats, by way of Steven Spielberg’s AI

“…if we’re to be helped, it’s got to be by magic.”
— Woody Allen, by way of Mockingbird (7/21/09)

This week I’d like to talk about five movies where fantasy and dream and magic and childhood meet: Coraline, Paperhouse, The Innocents, The Red Balloon, and AI.


This movie was just released this week on DVD. Very worth seeing.

Check out R-J’s great review of it five months ago. Now that I have seen it, I agree with him that it’s a bad movie for small kids; though it might fine for kids older than that, as long as they are prepared to be scared. (That should be a movie slogan.)

R-J and I see the movie a bit differently in other respects: he sees it as having a Message, which I don’t thankfully, since I cordially dislike all message movies. I do think it deals with real terrors, hopes, and dreams embedded in childhood.

The author of the book it was based on is Neil Gaiman, who wrote in my opinion the best fantasy novel of the last twenty years (Neverwhere).

Sadly this is no longer available on DVD. But if somehow you can find an old copy, or otherwise get to see it, drop everything you can. It’s magical and wonderful and scary and touching with extraordinary music. It’s about a British girl who begins finding out that the pictures she draws somehow are linking her to a world where they are real; and where a sad boy lives. It’s also a meditation on a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth (Christina’s World).

The Innocents (1961)

An adaptation of the Henry James short story “The Turn of the Screw”, The Innocents features a stunning performance by Deborah Kerr (who plays a governess) and two child actors.

It’s an extended meditation on Ephesians 6:12: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Or are Kerr’s misgivings just the projection of a fractured and troubled psyche? One of the best ghost stories ever made.

The Red Balloon (1956 – 34 minutes)

A loose adaptation of the story of the Gospel, it is about the love of a Red Balloon for a little boy.

It’s set in Paris and has almost no words (except twice where the boy calls to the balloon: “Ba-lo!” (For those of us who have a special love for Blaise Pascal, who really knew the Gospel by the way, you may be interested to know that the director cast his own son as the Boy, and his son’s real name was Pascal.)

Parts of it are really funny. And the music is truly out of this world. The end will make you happier than you’ve ever been and captures better than anything else the sense of us being claimed and chosen by Another; and bound for a Good Place far away.

AI (2001)
A lovely sci-fi fantasy adaptation of Pinnochio, originally envisioned by Stanley Kubrick and handed by him to Steven Spielberg shortly before his death.

True to its fairytale form, it has a scene where the android boy is taken out into a forest by his human mother and abandoned. The scene between the boy and the mother is possibly the most powerful moment ever created in film:

Monica: You won’t understand the reasons but I have to leave you here.

David: Is it a game?

Monica: No.

David: When will you come back for me?

Monica: I’m not, David. You’ll have to be here by yourself.

David: (pause) Alone?

Monica: With Teddy.

David: No. (pause) No, no, no! No, Mommy, please! No, no. Please, Mommy.
Monica: They would destroy you, David!
David: I’m sorry I broke myself. I’m so sorry I cut your hair off. I’m sorry I hurt Martin.
Monica: I have to go. I have to go! Stop it! I have to go now.
David: Mommy, don’t! Mommy if Pinocchio became real and I become a real boy can I come home?
Monica: That’s just a story.
David: But a story tells what happens.
Monica: Stories are not real! You’re not real! Now, look. Take this, alright? Don’t let anyone see how much it is. Look. Don’t go that way. Go anywhere but that way or they’ll catch you. Don’t ever let them catch you! Listen, stay away from Flesh Fairs, away from where there are lots of people. Stay away from all people. Only others like you, only Mecha are safe!
David: Why do you want to leave me? Why? I’m sorry I’m not real. If you let me, I’ll be so real for you!
Monica: Let go, David! Let go! I’m sorry… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.

AI also has wonderful other characters. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) is my favorite. He’s a lot of fun and comes to be David’s protector. Here are a few more quotable moments, useful in anyone’s daily life:

Gigolo Joe: I’m in bad trouble.

David: My brain is falling out.

Gigolo Jane: Hey Joe, what do you know?
Gigolo Joe: Hey Jane, how’s the game?

Gigolo Joe: We will ask Dr. Know. There is nothing he doesn’t.

The movie is uneven in places. Spielberg doesn’t know how exactly to permit a fairy tale to exist on its own, thus his need to give awkward exposition and explain when in the future this is happening, linking it back to “real” events like IBM’s Big Blue playing chess against grand masters, or how history has traveled from the real world to this “future” time; and he runs into this same problem at the end.

In fact, this isn’t a hard-science prediction story set in the future. It’s Pinnochio, the story of the little wooden Boy who desperately needs to be loved and to be real. It’s Luther in a storm crying out how can I find a gracious God?

Thus Spielberg is at his best once the story of the Boy has begun, or when the Boy is on his perilous flight from the Powers and Principalities. (You’ll be amazed at what extraordinary magic and terror can be evoked in a brief moment with the phrase: Moon rising!)

Problems aside, this is one of the great movies about childhood and magic and aching need. It needs to be seen.