The great RPG designers/podcasters Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws often suggest that, before starting a new campaign, GMs should show players a movie or TV show episode to show them the style they’re going for. So, if you’re starting a Dreamland campaign, what movies should everybody watch? If players don’t want to read a bunch of dusty 100-year-old fantasy stories (or even relatively recent fantasy stories, like Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe), are there movies or TV shows that express the feel of Dreamland?
The truth is, there aren’t many, but there are a few. First, addressing the elephant in the room; most “people who enter other people’s dreams” movies, from Dreamscape to Waking Life to Inception, aren’t Dreamlandy. Even the beautiful and imaginative ones like Paprika and Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer are fundamentally different in one big way: they depict small local dreamworlds centered on the psyches of particular people, rather than a shared, persistent dreamworld. Even those few movies that do show persistent dreamworlds, like Wristcutters or Ink, don’t have Dreamland’s retro-fantasy flavor. Non-Jung-fans might wonder “why should Dreamland look like the past anyway”, and maybe it’s a conscious artistic decision to show Dreamland as a reflection of modern life, but of course, it’s also much much cheaper that way.
To really find movies that look like Dreamland, then, you have to forget about the “dreams=sleep” aspect and focus on the other meaning of “dreams”: fancies, fantasies, fairytales. Dreamland is closer to Wonderland and Fairyland than to psychoanalytic dream-interpretation. The movies that most capture the feeling of Dreamland are movies about symbolism, surrealism and myth…and if there’s a portal fantasy aspect too, with modern-day humans travelling there, that’s the icing on the cake.
In this post, I’ll talk about Dreamland-ish movies and TV shows from 1939 to 1990, and in the next post, I’ll write about Dreamlandy movies and shows from the last 30 years.
The Holy Mountain (1973)
A lowly thief tries to rob a magician, who turns him from his evil ways and gathers a group of sinners on a journey for the legendary mountain which will turn them from dross into gold. If Dunsany’s best fables had left-leaning politics and modern-day imagery—fairytales set in a world of factories and fascists—they might be a little like this dreamlike film by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Each scene saturated with color, strangeness and symbolism (and some cruelty to animals, but anyway), The Holy Mountain is a masterpiece. Jodorowsky’s other movies, especially the mystic Western El Topo and the cruel postapocalyptic Fando and Lis, also have the winning combination of a quest structure and Surrealist fantasy.
The Neverending Story (1984)
Every ’80s kid knows Falcor and that Limahl theme song, and despite its anti-video-game bias, the movie is a wonderful kids’ fantasy: gorgeous animatronic monsters, epic sweep, and existential questions. Is Fantastica, the land of the imagination, another name for Dreamland? Are the heroic Atreyu and the bookish Bastian really two aspects of the same person, split between two worlds? The original book by Michael Ende is even better and subverts the isekai formula which the movie merely, though marvelously, celebrates. Avoid the terrible sequels, which don’t even have good monsters.
Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
One of the most beautiful anime movies ever made, this visionary film was based on Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 philosophical fantasy novel. Two boys, Giovanni and Campanella, wander out of their village on the night of a festival and find a magic train which takes them to the stars, where wandering souls travel to their final destinations, past images of cosmic beauty. More akin to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Buddhist style!) than David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, this is a lush, profound film with unforgettable music. Oh yeah, and in the anime, everyone is drawn as cats. This is what I think of when Dunsany writes lines like “the blue gloaming in which the stars spin”… or “from the abyss there grew with their roots in far constellations a row of hollyhocks, and amongst them a small green garden quivered and trembled as scenes tremble in water…”
Labyrinth (1986) and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller(1987)
No one does fairies like the Frouds. The teamup of Brian and Wendy Froud’s creature designs plus Henson & Co.’s animatronic technology made several amazing films, none more rich and emotional (and Dreamland-like) than Labyrinth‘s tale of a girl’s quest through Fairyland to save her baby brother from life as a Muppet. Along the way she faces the dangerous temptations of childhood (the garbagewoman scene) and adulthood (several scenes, but especially everything with David Bowie, whose music and glam performance here are legendary). The “humans trapped in a world of puppets” premise had worked for Henson on The Muppet Show, whose Brooke Shields episode is in some ways a precursor to Labyrinth, in both its delightful and skeevy aspects. The Storyteller TV series, produced not long after this movie, has equally delightful puppets, while trading the “journey to another world” isekai aspect for an also-rewarding deep dive into obscure European fairytales.
Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989)
Honestly, this movie is terrible, but it gets a place on this list as a stand-in for the art of Winsor McCay, whose Little Nemo comic stripsare filled with gorgeous sunset cities and wondrous vistas. The film adaptation is a classic case of Hollywood executives having enough money to hire great talent—Ray Bradbury! Studio Ghibli! Brian Froud!—but incompetently mashing their work together into an awful film, with boring songs and a boring villain that will make any animation nerd appreciate the relative marvels of the Disney Renaissance. To see the best parts, just watch the first five minutes (when the Ghibli animators were let loose to do something totally unlike the rest of the movie), then after Nemo wakes up go read the comic. Or check out Tom Petty’s Running down a Dream music video or even the 1990 NES game.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985)
Look past the crustiness clinging to the Oz name, and enjoy the archetypal portal fantasy, innocent Midwesterners teleported to a whimsical world of strange peoples and talking beasts. The original movie is a children’s classic, while the darker-and-edgier sequel Return to Oz has solid ’80s SFX and features some of the freaky monsters introduced in L. Frank Baum’s later Oz sequels. (It also has an anti-psychiatry subplot, adding “will Dorothy be forced to undergo electroshock therapy” to the usual “is it all a dream” frame story.) Oz is a world of happy endings, of course, but the original books have ample weirdness and moments of gallows humor…not to mention Queen Ozma, the first trans heroine in modern fantasy literature.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
Full of bright colors, great songs and pop Surrealism, the Beatles’ animated movie is still one of the most original “journey to an imaginary land” movies ever made. The Sea of Green must be next to the Cerenarian Sea, somehow…
Settle into a Surrealist utopian community and descend into dystopian Hell in this adaptation of Alfred Kubin’s masterpiece 1908 pseudo-horror novel The Other Side. The film subverts (in a ’70s way) the Orientalism of the original, and more sadly removes most of the overt fantasy elements, but remains a chilling experience, perhaps even more so than the book. Not at all Dunsany-Dreamlandy really, but the word “Dreamland” is literally the name of the community in the film and it’s got a sadistic brilliance so why not.
Time Bandits (1981)
It’s time-travel rather than dream-travel, but for picaresque adventure, monsters, and a cosmically weird ending, this movie has the Dreamland spirit.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Essentially an anthology film, this horror-fantasy ties together several fairytales about werewolves with a frame narrative about a young girl’s dreams. A Dreamland campaign where wolves travelled between the waking world and Dreamland, rather than cats like in Lovecraft’s stories, might look something like this film. Excellent monster SFX.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and Arabian Nights (1974)
If you want to go that way, you could sink into the Orientalist trappings of Dunsany and Lovecraft with pseudo-Arabian fantasy films. Among the better examples: The Thief of Bagdad is a genuinely good movie thanks largely to Sabu and Rex Ingram, and while I haven’t seen Pasolini’s X-rated Arabian Nights…hey, it’s Pasolini!
NEXT: The last 30 years