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To Magic and Not To Magic

Banes at 12:00AM, Dec. 9, 2021

One common story formula involves a character receiving a magical gift…or magical ‘curse’…and being forced to deal with the chaos that the magic causes.

In Liar Liar, the slick, dishonest attorney is compelled to only speak the truth.
In Groundhog Day, the main character repeats the same day over and over.
In What Women Want, the advertising exec can read the minds of all females.
In Big, a frustrated kid finds himself in an adult body.
In The Nutty Professor (1996), an overweight scientist becomes fit, lean and confident.

In these magic spell stories, characters are thrust into a Twilight Zone-thing, often with powers that give them great advantages. Even the “curses” are often blessings at least in some ways. And the characters always have lessons to learn and growing to do. Even the nicer Protagonists.

The character will enjoy the advantages their unusual situation gives them, before realizing they need something more than these superficial victories.

Then they will try to outwit or break the curse in some way (seen when Jim has his son make another birthday wish to end his curse in Liar Liar, and when Mel repeats the conditions that led to his telepathic powers in What Women Want). It won't work.

In the end, it's the humanity they had inside all along that wins the day - it's not the powers. This is a vital element to making these stories resonate. Sure, someone could do a version of this kind of story where no growth is required and no human struggle needed, and where greater power wins the day…but these will not be stories that matter to people on any real level.

In The Nutty Professor, it's not charismatic, handsome Buddy Love who wins the day…actually Buddy becomes the villain. It's overweight, gentle Sherman who finds the determination to fight and win the victory in the end.

In Big, Josh doesn't use his “powers” as a successful adult to finally learn his lesson; it's the almost-teenager within him that has the insight to realize that he doesn't want or need a shortcut to adulthood.

In Liar Liar, Fletcher chooses to be more truthful and have integrity in the end - it's not the magic that forces him forever, because that would be a pointless story.

In Groundhog Day, Phil becomes the best version of himself, using his timeloop-given knowledge but also pushing himself to be caring and heroic, and that's what finally breaks the curse.

I don't remember What Women Want well enough, but I'd bet my last Quackbuck that there's some variation of this that solves the problem for Mel Gibson in the end of that movie too.

In stories based on magical blessings or curses, it's the humanity - not the powers - that have to make the real difference in the end.

it's true! all you have to do is believe!

You again?? That has nothing to do with the topic under discussion! Knock it off!

Sorry everybody. Frikkin sasquatches…

Have a good one!




marcorossi at 10:32AM, Dec. 9, 2021

@PaulEberhardt an ancient example would be king Midas, who in some versions repents and get his gift revoked.

PaulEberhardt at 6:30AM, Dec. 9, 2021

There is a strong motif of redemption in there, and it's so timeless and classic that it feels as if it should be ancient - but I can't think of any really old tale that works like this. Some may have some similarities, but none of them exactly features a character regaining his/her humanity through a cathartic experiences with a gift that's a curse, e.g. by saving the day. That's really interesting. Seems like modern-day scriptwriters CAN come up with bright original ideas if they make an effort. Btw. in case nobody mentioned Bruce Almighty, I'd like to give that one a shoutout, too. While some of the gags take some things about God a bit too literally, you get some really good laughs that make you think as soon as you get your breath back.

EssayBee at 6:15AM, Dec. 9, 2021

A twist on this same basic theme is It's a Wonderful Life and its ilk, looking at the effects of a character seeing what it would be like if they were never in the world. Usedbooks--If you like time-twist stories, if you haven't already, check out The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It's an enjoyable anime from Mamoru Hosoda (whose Wolf Children is one of my favorite animes).

plymayer at 5:48AM, Dec. 9, 2021

The bigger I get the more I resemble Murphy's Professor Klump.

cdmalcolm1 at 3:07AM, Dec. 9, 2021

The What Women Want was, in a nutshell, to respect women in the end and not take advantage of them. Freaky Friday is another one I believe. Parent Trap wasn’t magical but to me it kind of offered the same feeling. As marcorossi said the “outerm journey” of the character (s).

marcorossi at 2:05AM, Dec. 9, 2021

Recently I've been wandering about the relationship between the "inner journey" (the personal growth part of the plot) and the "outern journey" (the adventuring and defeating obstacles part of the plot). In these magical gift stories there is also often a contrast about how a character looks from the outside and how a character is in the inside; but I can't put my finger on the mechanics of it.

bravo1102 at 12:55AM, Dec. 9, 2021

Almost all these magical stories were done in one or another of the Anthology series of the 1960s especially the Twilight Zone. No nonsense stretched out to ninety minutes but simple direct stories about people. Love potions and the coin falling on edge rather than heads or tails, genies, Satan (including in one a marvelous pre Catwoman Julie Newmar) Taking a spin through them is like seeing all those movies but in one third the time. :D

bravo1102 at 12:49AM, Dec. 9, 2021

Nutty professor was a take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which was about the powers of drugs (including alcohol) to change someone and the dangers of addiction. The original was also a look at how Jerry Lewis saw himself as opposed to his public image and a little twist at Lewis's former partner Dean Martin. Jerry Lewis movies always have a subtext.

usedbooks at 12:33AM, Dec. 9, 2021

Magical realism is my favorite genre. It's a step removed from the superhero genre. Like, a humble, more practical, more plausible version of it. I'd put Raising Dion in that category. And the video game Life is Strange is spectacular, although the theme/lesson is very sobering. (For those unfamiliar, the main character discovers the ability to rewind time a few seconds and have "redos. She uses the power in an attempt to save a friend's life and stop a serial killer.) The anime series Erased (another time-rewind-based tale) is one of my favorite stories. A lot of Christmas movies fall into that genre too, with Christmas miracles from angelic beings or magical elf creatures.

usedbooks at 12:23AM, Dec. 9, 2021

It's been a long time since I saw it, but I recall The Nutty Professor as a humorous spin on Dr. Jekyll.

Ozoneocean at 12:13AM, Dec. 9, 2021

*It CAN turn

Ozoneocean at 12:12AM, Dec. 9, 2021

Interesting. I wonder if the Nutty Professor (the original and the remake) were about the power of alcohol? It take turn you into a suave, funny, popular person, but it can also turn you into a monster... And if you rely on it too much that's the only result.

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