Dickens, for the 21st century. Everyone needs a little fantasy, and some of us need rather a lot. If you're a cinephile or the parents of one, you've probably seen a great many kids' films this year that made you want to take a sledgehammer to the screen. Thankfully the Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for Youth starts next week (Feb. 23-Mar. 2, 2007) in Vancouver. For all those parents waiting patiently to take their kids to the movie theatre (and I count myself among your number), rejoice! Reel 2 Real has a number of excellent choices for small fry including documentaries, animated shorts, feature films and workshops. The festival is packed with animation -- everything from Bill Plymptom's latest romp (Guide Dog) to Pinch, a lovely film from local animator Jody Kramer about the joys of repetitive stress injury. The feature films circle the globe: from Canada (The Point, one of the contenders for the Borsos Prize at the Whistler Film Festival); U.S.A. (Colma: The Musical); Germany (We Shall Overcome, winner of the Crystal Bear for Best Feature at the Kinderfilmfest component of the 2006 Berlin Film Festival); South Africa (Boy Called Twist); and France/Belgium/Italy/Spain (Azur and Asmar). There is even a Dutch horror movie for children. Director Pieter Kuijpers's film The Horror Bus spins the dark yarn of Onnoval, a young boy who is slightly different from his classmates. He writes poetry, he's desperately in love with the lovely Liselore and he's a werewolf. So, things are tough all over for our hero. At home his parents are so wrapped up in their own creative lives (mother is a painter and dad is a rock musician) that they don't even notice their son is suffering. While at school, Liselore has attracted the attention of the class bully, a sullen oaf named Gino. When Gino overhears Onnoval and Liselore exchanging their deepest secrets, he blackmails the girl into kissing him in exchange for leaving her boyfriend alone. But Onnoval witnesses the smooch and all hell breaks loose. Driven by passion, Onnoval writes a story of terrible revenge in his notebook and gives it to a mysterious entity named Ferluci (rearrange those letters), who offers to make it come true. The monster you know... The most curious thing about watching kids' films from other countries is how matter-of-fact they are about the brutal realities of the playground. This is especially true in the case of first love, when betrayal pierces tiny souls to the quick. I don't think I've ever known love like I knew it in grade four. Onnoval appears to be having the same experience. His love for Liselore is the critical factor that prompts his pact with Satan, and Liselore is, indeed, a worthy candidate for such devotion. She is fearless, loyal and the owner of a ferocious one-fingered salute, unafraid to punch bullies in the face, or go toe-to-toe with a vampire. Who wouldn't love such a girl? Despite its fantastical elements, the more nitty-gritty realities of childhood are perhaps more engaging. The horrors of reading your poem in front of the class are far worse than being menaced by any monster, and poor old Onnoval must face both. Character is destiny don't you know, and here that precept is put to the test when Onnoval must prove himself a creature of courage, quite literally, and rewrite his own fate. Horror Bus is a charmingly odd film, but while watching it, I was struck by the critical importance that fantasy plays in human life. An idea that is also the predominant theme of Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel's documentary Darkon, which recently screened at the Victoria Film Festival. Darkon is the name of a fictional kingdom, one part Dungeons and Dragons, to two parts Society for Creative Anachronism, with more than a whiff of LOTR. (That's Lord of the Rings for you novices.) In the fields and woods of Baltimore, Darkon participants dress up in homemade armour and stage enormous battles, bonking each other with foam swords. It might sound ridiculous, and occasionally it is, but there is also something deeply moving about people's desire for experience that is bigger and more thrilling than ordinary life. Valour! Passion! Glory! Giant foam swords! The film follows two men and their alter egos: Skip Lipmann (Bannor of Laconia) and Kenyon Wells (Keldar of Mordom) in their actual lives and their other imagined lives in Darkon. As the film cuts back and forth between the world of Darkon and the day-to-day existence of its participants, with their Starbucks jobs and household chores, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which version of the self is more genuine than the other. Are you whom you wish to be? Can you create yourself anew, if you believe hard enough? One of the most oddly thrilling scenes in the entire film takes place in a suburban living room, when the camera crew films Skip's youngest son in a lengthy sword battle with invisible enemies. The passion and excitement in this small body could power a large American city. Watching kids act out the stories in their brains reminds one of the power and the transformative nature of fantasy. "Little world just as real as big world," is how Skip describes Darkon, but it applies equally well to adult and child world. Perhaps more so. Children within The all-encompassing nature of play is an experience that is probably familiar to most people. I remember acting out stories of battles, armies, betrayals, spies and counterspies in the bushes behind the school, and being jolted abruptly out of this world by the lunch bell, like being woken suddenly from a dream. I watch my own kid busily acting out tales of heroism and derring-do and remember all over again what it was like to deeply believe the stories in your head, like an endless film that played double, triple, even quadruple features day and night. Those who are most bewitched go on to actually create these stories for real. The New York Times Magazine recently featured a series of short films of Academy Award nominees Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt and Helen Mirren talking about the films that inspired them as children. It is interesting to see the commonality of experience about the first film you see and remember as a child. Sometimes it's not the Disney films that have the most profound impact, but the films where you realize that life is often unjust, cruel and arbitrary. I don't think I ever quite got over seeing the Isadora Duncan story as a small child. I devoted a fair number of days afterwards to re-imagining the film so that it had a happy ending, no children drove off a bridge and drowned, no scarves wound around unwary necks and everything worked out okay. Which is funnily enough exactly the same thing that happens in Horror Bus, when little Onnoval must rewrite his own story so that everything turns out okay. When The Lord of the Rings first came out, my nephew Gaelin (eight at the time) said, "I just want to live inside The Lord of the Rings." And I knew exactly what he meant. We're mythic creatures and we live in the stories that we tell. All that Joseph Campbell stuff about heroic stories being hardwired in the human brain is extremely clear when you watch little kids watching movies. They want heroics, courage, adventure, all the good stuff that the real world provides so little of these days. Therein it begins, so do your kids a favour: take them to see something that will fire their little imaginations and be the focal point of fantasy for the rest of their days. Related Tyee stories: A Shocking Fairytale 'Pan's Labyrinth' winds through sex, tragedy and death of innocence. 'Open Season' on Dumb Kids' Movies Enough with the animals and stereotypes already. God, Those Girls Can Fight Is girls' b-ball about savagery, courage, religion or all three?