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Confession: I'm a hopeless romantic, but I've never had that much interest in Valentine's Day. My husband and I celebrate the day after Valentine's because that's when we met, but that's the closest the day ever comes to having any significance for me. In a lot of ways, Valentine's Day resembles a romantic fantasy in structure: People cram all the trappings of a romance into a single day, and typically disregard any resemblance to real life in the process. I know a lot of people who base their ideas on true love from what they see in fantasy -- and for that reason love the holiday. The problem is that what makes for good romance in a fantasy flick isn't necessarily what you should look for in real life, on Valentine's Day or any other.
A good fantasy romance requires star-crossed lovers -- people who have absolutely no buisness being together, but will wind up that way by the end of the movie anyways. In Enchanted (2007), Giselle (Amy Adams) is from the two-dimensional world of Andalasia and is the proto-typical Disney princess: Good-hearted and innocent to the point you almost want to gag. When she winds up in contemporary New York City and meets Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a divorce lawyer, it's love at first tort. Of course they have nothing in common -- he helps people get divorces; she sings songs to mice -- but who cares, right? Here's a hint: In real life, the two-dimensional love interests tend to stay shallow. Find someone that's got some depth from the beginning.
Besides general personalities, a fantasy romance requires obstacles to the love story right up until the very end. The mildest of these shows up in Kate and Leopold (2001), in which our lovers face a serious generation gap. How serious? Well, Kate (Meg Ryan) is from the 21st century and her love interest, Leopold (Hugh Jackman) is from the 19th. Awkward. True, people can find love across an age barrier, but it's not easy or common. If you are dating someone who's from a different generation, be prepared to do some work. Love doesn't happen by magic.
Another common obstacle is that one of the lovers is under a spell. There's a really good example of that in Beauty and the Beast (1991). The Beast (Robby Benson) has serious anger management issues and is placed under a spell until he learns to fall in love. If he doesn't do it by the time the last petal falls off a magic rose, then he is doomed to be a beast forever. When Belle (Paige O'Hara) turns up, her patience and winning ways transform him from rage master into a handsome prince. Real life rarely works that way: If someone has a nasty temper, no magic will make that go away, and no gorgeous princess will see past it all and fall in love.
Spells in fantasies can also work to separate couples that are actually compatible, and that's no good either. Witness A Midsummer's Night Dream (1999), where everyone is happily paired up until Puck (Stanley Tucci) drops magic potions in their eyes that cause them to fall in love with the first person they see. The lovers wind up fixated on the wrong people, leading to some serious stalking. At one point Helena tells Demetrius "I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius, The more you beat me, I will fawn on you." Okay. I don't care what kind of spell you're under, in real life if the person you're in love with is running away and you're wanting to be their spaniel, it's probably a sign that the romance isn't going to work out.
If you're still convinced that true love is only a fantasy reel away, I have one final example for you, and it's this little thing called Death. I could rattle off a long list of fantasy flicks where the two lovers' affection for each other almost gets one or both killed -- Princess Bride, The Little Mermaid, Ladyhawke -- but none show it as clearly as 2005's Corpse Bride. In this Tim Burton flick, Victor (Johnny Depp) has to escape from the Land of the Dead, use a fork to defend himself against a sword, and threaten to drink a goblet full of poisonous wine before he can live "happily ever after" with his bride (Emily Watson). Facing probable death is not a good plan in general romance. I certainly wouldn't recommend it for your Valentine's Day.
What fantasy movies do you (inadvisedly) turn to for romantic advice?
Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.