The Best Movie Ever: Teen Fantasy
With Divergent coming out this weekend – and all the hopes of Hollywood on its shoulders, praying the teen fantasy/young adult genre isn't dead yet – we got to thinking about how long these tropes have been playing out in theaters. Movies have long catered to teenaged audiences, and dramatized their romances, dramas and hang-ups through the lens of larger-than-life stories that make being an adolescent feel way more important than it probably really is. The genre is older than The Hunger Games, older than Twilight, and way older than Harry Potter. With dozens of well-known movies fitting the mold, which of them really is The Best Teen Fantasy Movie Ever?
We got the CraveOnline film critics together – William "Bibbs" Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Fred Topel – to come up with their picks on this week's installment of The Best Movie Ever. Joining them is Gwen Reyes of ReelVixen.com.
Intriguingly, all the films these critics chose came out when they were teenagers. Are the older teen fantasy movies really better, or does nostalgia play a factor? Ten years from now, will The Hunger Games be declared the best teen fantasy movie ever just because it came out when everyone was young and impressionable? You can help us get a reading on the popular opinion by reading our critics' picks and then casting your own vote at the bottom of the page.
I get a lot of guff when I lump films like The Hunger Games or Divergent into the "teen fantasy" genre. "It's sci-fi!" they yell. "It's Young Adult!" they cry. "It's a fantasy," I remind them, since these films are less about the impact of technology on our lives than they are about engineering an elaborate power fantasy for disenfranchised adolescents who think their problems are so enormously significant that they can only be illustrated in a larger-than-life worlds in which they are the messiah. The science-fiction angle is incidental to the overarching dream that we are beautiful and unique snowflakes who are destined to save the world by merely coming of age.
To that end, I am convinced that the best teen fantasy movie is still Nick Castle's The Last Starfighter, one of the few films in the genre that I loved growing up and that repeated viewings have yet to ruin now that I have matured. Lance Guest stars as teenager who's only good at one thing, video games, and while in real life that would only qualify him to work in quality assurance at Activision, in The Last Starfighter it earns him a place in an intergalactic air force. Soon enough he is the last person in the universe capable of stopping an evil dictator, while his robot doppelganger back on Earth (so no one suspects Guest has gone) fights to save his girlfriend from a vicious bounty hunter.
Castle's film is inventive, clever, memorably designed and lovably acted (particularly by Robert Preston as Guest's opportunistic Obi-Wan), and it's a textbook success example of Campbell's hero's journey, but most importantly it's every teenager's dream. The Last Starfighter suggests that growing up involves embracing childish things and transforming them into an empowering career, not giving up on our passions in favor of a lucrative, yet soul-crushing day job. Anyone who actually makes a living in the entertainment industry will attest that achieving that fantasy is nearly impossible, but if you do succeed, it's just as rewarding as The Last Starfighter claims.
When pondering the perfect teen fantasy film it is hard not to go super modern with my pick. I mean, we’re living in a world where Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, and Percy Jackson all sit around fire pits and discuss the “Care and Feeding of Magical Creatures” while kissing the person of his or her dreams (in my head, at least), for goodness sake. So it is nearly impossible not to jump for joy for the youth of today who have such rich characters to lob onto.
But, I’m going to step away from these comfortable coming-of-age tales hand-picked by Hollywood, and take the time to reflect on a film that changed my life as a budding girl with feelings. When Labyrinth came out in 1986 I was far too young to watch it, so my introduction was later in my childhood. Which of course only made the experience more memorable. Screening Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly) quest to free her infant brother Toby (Toby Froud) from the clutches of The Goblin King (played mostly by David Bowie’s eyebrows and sexy glam rock hair) in the comfort of my room still gives me a secret thrill that can only be described as “electric.” The film is simple enough, which is why it works so well, but it is sprinkled with the perfect amount of scary creatures, a young maiden’s journey, and the eventual acceptance that to truly grow up you must retain some memories of your childhood.
Sarah’s quest in Labyrinth still holds up as one of the most exciting fantasy adventures (I watched the movie this morning, just to make sure), and even with the eyes of an adult I can empathize with Sarah—whose desire to stay a child causes her to lose her brother and then feel the instant regret of her selfish actions. Some grasp the adult themes of the Goblin King’s longing for a companion as he tries to trick Sarah into staying, but I cannot blame the girl for wanting to run away from his whiny attitude.
But then again, I still wish I could call back my imaginary friends, have a dance party in my childhood room, and maybe even think dirty thoughts about the goblin that got away.
Teen Fantasy – or YA fiction as it is known at your local library – is a largely limited genre. Despite fluctuations in setting, time, and even overall tone, the theme of every teen fantasy film – from Harry Potter to Zapped! – seems to be about the same: You, dear teenager, are extraordinary. Your specialness is something to cherish, and others will prosecute you for it. This all makes perfect sense, as this is the general mindset of your average adolescent. As you grow, so does your ego, your sense of self-pity, and your sense of self-loathing. Not to mention your love and sex glands. You begin to feel special, but also persecuted. And horny and in love all the time with everything.
And while there are many great teen films that deal with aching romance, I can think of no fantastical aching teen romance more archetypal, nor better, than Tim Burton's 1991 fantasy romance Edward Scissorhands. I saw the film at age 12, and was impressed but unmoved. Revisiting it at age 18 transformed it from a simple fantasy into one of the most moving films of my teen years. Edward is the ultimate teen pariah: Constructed in private, secretive, naturally sensitive, but misunderstood. He is compassionate, but saddled with a complex mechanical deformity (the scissorhands) that makes him both creative and capable (he can make paper dolls, topiary, and hairstyles), but also dangerous and imposing (he can kill). He is also a romantic at heart, and manages to find the woman of his dreams reciprocates his feelings once she finds out how sweet he is.
Tim Burton, with films like Edward Scissorhands, largely shaped my generation's fostering of Goth culture, which is simultaneously spiky and sentimental. For someone my age, there is perhaps no finer teen fantasy.