In Ben Stiller’s reworking the Danny Kaye-starring 1947 classic “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (itself expanded from a tiny short story by James Thurber), a man who falls into fantasy, only to find that real life can be – gasp! – just as good as the stuff he thinks up. The first act of the film is almost entirely defined by Walter’s (Stiller) uncanny ability to drift off in the middle of the day into complicated, long-form fantasies that are so consuming that other people have started to take notice of them; his new boss (played terrifyingly by Adam Scott) mocks him for it, and even his love interest Cheryl, (Kristen Wiig), implores him, “where do you go?” when he gets that glassy-eyed look in his eye.
Walter isn’t the happiest of guys, but he’s not a complete loser. While his personal life leaves something to be desired, he seems to enjoy his work at Life magazine, and though the women in his family (his mother is played by Shirley MacLaine, his sister by Kathryn Hahn) are nutty, they’re crazy in a run-of-the-mill and relatable way. Walter’s life is fine, but that doesn’t stop him from escaping inward by way of some major fantasy sequences that cast him as romantic hero, daring adventurer, and a superhero-styled avenger, amongst other things.
Walter does, of course, eventually break out of his own personal fantasy land in order to start living a life packed with the kind of adventures he used to only dream about (and also because he needs to find Sean Penn, but that’s a story for another day), and suddenly the fantastic is made real. Walter isn’t the only big dreamer in cinema (not by a long shot), and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” joins a long, long, long line of films that use fantasy sequences to impart both character insights and a bit of whimsy into their productions.
Alfred Hitchcock’s lifelong preoccupation with psychological drama and trauma means that the filmmaker long ago gifted the cinematic world with plenty of time-tested dream and fantasy sequences – but something about his work in “Spellbound” still casts its own special magic.
The film itself might not be one of his best (read: this thing has not exactly held up since it hit screens back in 1945), but the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence is still a classic. Gregory Peck’s Dr. Anthony Edwardes (aka John Ballantyne aka John Brown) unspools the dream – one ripe for analysis – and reveals a memory-jammed, imagery-loaded banger that soon leads to the revelation of madness, death, and mixed-up identities (and just like, a lot of floating eyes). A seamless blend of fantasy, dream, and memory, it’s a standard-bearer of the highest order.
8 1/2 (1963)
Much like we meet young Max Fischer via a fantasy, audiences were first introduced to the leading gentleman of “8 ½” by way of a show-stopping dream sequence. Anderson was surely influenced by Frederico Fellini’s inventive way of dropping an audience into both a character and a way of thinking, though Fellini’s opening scene, depicting the car-induced claustrophobia of Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi, is certainly much scarier than Max doing math. “8 ½” isn’t a horror film by any stretch, but Fellini’s frequent fantasy sequences do come with a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right, and his opener sets the stage for more high-flying fears to come.
FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982)
Who could possibly well, judge Judge Reinhold for leading the charge and dreaming up what is perhaps the greatest teen-centric fantasy scene in modern cinema? As Brad Hamilton, Reinhold’s character is one of the coolest dudes in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 high school comedy, but even he isn’t immune to desiring that which he cannot have – especially Phoebe Cates’ Linda Barrett. The Hamilton family pool is home to plenty of tasty times, but nothing comes close to the hormonal heaven that is Linda’s red bikini. Keep dreaming, Brad.
BETTER OFF DEAD (1985)
If you don’t like your fantasy sequences with a side of claymation burger and a generous dash of Van Halen, this might not be the fantasy sequence for you. Savage Steve Holland’s meaty, weird, and weirdly meaty “Better Off Dead” randomly includes a long musical sequence that involves John Cusack’s Lane Meyer going all Frankenstein on a burger at his fast food job, transforming a literal ball of meat into a nifty dancer who can also play guitar and also charm the ladies. He’s a burger, you guys. Now that’s a fantasy sequence.
Who among us has never fantasized about joining up with our favorite sport team? Even Chevy Chase’s Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher, perhaps the coolest slacker movie reporter ever, is beholden to his dreams as they apply to sports-based glory. A huge Laker fan, ol’ Fletch spices up his watching of an otherwise regular game with one-half sleepiness and one-half desire to win – even if that includes some questionable hairstyle choices.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)
Like most parts of the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” the Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) knockout-induced dream sequence only gets better with time and well-lubricated re-watches. Here is a dream sequence that just plain feels like a dream sequence, including mixed-up imagery, familiar faces and places, and the overwhelming sense that there’s no way it can be real, no matter how it feels in the moment. While not a true fantasy sequence – after all, the Dude is unconscious while it happens – like most dreams, the scene reveals some deep-seated fantasies that Bridges needs to explore post-haste (like his association of Julianne Moore’s Maude Lebowski as a Viking queen). Bottling this kind of stuff won’t abide, you know?
Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is a dreamer – a big, unabashed, perhaps insane dreamer – but his dreams of being bigger and better certainly have a sweet center and admirable aim. Max just wants to excel at school (okay, fine, he really just wants to rule his entire school, but it’s not like his ambition is hurting anyone besides himself, at least when we first meet him), and we learn that incredibly early in Wes Anderson’s 1998 charmer. How early? Opening sequence early, when we meet both Max and his dreamy fantasies of academic glory, all centered on an unsolvable math equation and our star’s prowess navigating a blackboard.
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
There’s little debate that Sam Mendes’ beloved 1999 dark dramedy, “American Beauty,” is about the price of sacrifice, especially when it comes to emotional and sexual desires, and how all that fuels Lester Burnham’s (Kevin Spacey) unhealthy fixation on his teen daughter’s best friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). While Lester’s obsession with Angela is uncomfortable and inappropriate, his highly memorable rose-petal-laden fantasy about Angela is relatively tame, and almost, well, beautiful. Not all fantasies have to be dark, even if they do give all of us the sense that we need to take a bath afterwards (rose petals not included).
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)
There’s no need to argue here – yes, most of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” dances so maddeningly between fantasy and reality that it’s hard to pick out one, precise sequence to laud as the very best, but this one certainly seems like the most obvious, if not the most representative, pick. While it takes some time to unravel the many layers of fantasy and reality in the film, about halfway through the feature, everything is blown sky high when an actual actress in the film (star Naomi Watts) begins to understand that she herself might just be a fantasy. Or she might be fully in control. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. You figure out where to draw that line.
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (2006)
Some people are “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” people and some people are “The Science of Sleep” people, though we suspect that both types of people can appreciate a charmingly-designed and lovingly-set dream sequence as crafted by Michel Gondry. The filmmaker’s 2006 underlooked gem is all about a dreamer – a very literal one – played by Gael Garcia Bernal. While his Stephane is consumed by constantly intermingling dreams, fantasies, and realities, it becomes harder and harder to tell what is real and what is imagined (for both Stephane and the audience). Stephane’s in-dream chat show includes plenty of homespun fairy tales, but once his lovely neighbor (Stephanie, naturally) starts to show up in them unannounced, everything changes.