Magic and Wish-Fulfillment: My Pleasure in Movies with Magic

[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in late June, 2023]

In most ways, I’m attached to rationality. I like to think in terms of what the evidence, interpreted logically, shows to be true. And I like weaving cause-and-effect together to make sense of what forces operate in the world we live in.

Nonetheless, I take especial delight from movies where “magic” plays a crucial role– movies that present a realm where things happen mysteriously, as if magical forces beyond our ken are at work.

That’s because, as marvelous as the world is, it gives us plenty we wish were different. And magic can fulfill those wishes.

Like the magic of time-travel.

Back to the Future begins with our hero burdened by being part of a family of losers. But his magically going back in time – to the moment his parents first got together — enables him to rid himself of that burden. Through a combination of the hero’s purposeful action and some strokes of luck, he succeeds in making fortunate transformations in the founding of his family. When he returns to the present, his previously loser father is a success, his lush of a mother is sober, etc.

Magic helps make things right.

(“It might have been” ceases to be “the saddest words” also in Déjà Vu, where Denzel Washington can re-write the past so that the beautiful woman he’d first seen on a slab in the morgue gets rescued, and the two enter a new present where the two might find a loving future together.)

Another movie with magic of which I’m fond is Freaky Friday. It sets the stage by depicting a dysfunctional relationship between an adolescent girl and her mother. We in the audience – identifying with these characters — wish for familial happiness. How can this mother and daughter come to deal with each other with greater respect, appreciation and compassion?

Enter the magic—which arranges for mother and daughter to swap bodies and positions in life. From this magical “walking a mile in the other’s shoes,” mother and daughter are transformed, enabled to feel greater understanding and love for each other.

Sometimes the connection between “magic” and “wish-fulfillment” is quite explicit. The “wish” is not some ritual act that we irrationally indulge in (before we blow out the candles on the birthday cake). In a movie, the wish can prove to be the mighty (albeit inexplicable) Force that sets things in motion.

Like in Liar, Liar: a boy who feels painfully let down by his father whose words simply cannot be trusted, responds to his latest disappointment by sending a wish into the cosmos. “I wish that for just one day …Dad cannot tell a lie.”

Somehow, magically, that wish is granted. And the transformative consequences not only fulfill our wishes for the father to meet his son’s needs, but also reunites the parents, creating something far more like the family we would wish for.

(The Wish also sets in motion the action of Big: our hero: an undersized 13 year-old, suffering disappointments because of his youth and size, wishes (on a carnival machine) to be made Big. Through the unexplained magic of wish-fulfillment, he wakes up the next morning in the man’s body of Tom Hanks. The resulting marvelous adventures  – just what the boy might have wished for – allow him ultimately to embrace a return to his boyhood.)

In what I regard as my very favorite movie – Ground Hog Day – a jerk is compelled, by some unexplained magical cosmic force, to become the person he should be. Which is also what he needs to be to find happiness.

People nowadays use that title – “Ground Hog Day” — to mean simply that the same thing happens over and over again. But that repetition is just the means by which that unexplained force teaches our hero what he needs to learn.

Our protagonist begins as an egotistical and manipulative person with no regard for others. But then he is magically compelled to live the very same day over and over again – perhaps through thousands of repetitions — until his repeated failures (to get the woman he desires) lead to his transformation.

The cosmos compels him to learn that being a jerk is a road to unhappiness. Being manipulative will not bring him the love he seeks. A very Christian message: the person he has been must “die” so that he can be reborn. His cumulative experience of the magical repetition of a single day eventually transforms him into a person who knows how to love, and who can therefore win love in return.

Without the magic, the man we met at the beginning would likely never have achieved that redemption.

There are some spiritual traditions that emphasize detachment, and the giving up of desire. Whether or not that’s enlightened, it doesn’t fit how I’m put together: I am pretty profoundly oriented toward desiring for things to be as they should be.

Given the limitations of the world as it actually seems to be, which give us reasons to yearn for our wishes to be fulfilled, it’s not surprising that many of us are drawn to stories that inject our world with the kinds of magic that provide us the sweet gratifications of wish-fulfillment.

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