Recently I watched Jonathan Glazer's Birth, starring Nicole Kidman. It was an epic and beautiful movie that shook me to my core. And it was unlike many movies I usually watch. That's because this one lived in the genre of magical realism.

This fantastical narrative technique pulls different emotions and ideas out of us. And when it's done well, it can make the audience feel like anything can happen at any moment.

In this post, we delve into the essence of magical realism in film and TV, defining its characteristics and showcasing examples that highlight its unique ability to enchant, challenge, and reflect.

Let's get started.

Magical Realism Definition

Magical realism is a narrative technique that introduces magical elements into an otherwise realistic setting.

Unlike fantasy, where the existence of magic is often central to the plot and world-building, magical realism treats the extraordinary as part of everyday life, accepted without question by the characters.

This seamless integration of the magical with the real offers a way to explore complex themes—such as identity, colonialism, and the human condition—through a lens that can make them more accessible and emotionally resonant.

Magical Realism Tropes and Characteristics

magical realism

Pans Labyrinth


It's hard to define this idea without seeing some of the more characteristics that make a film fall into this category.

Here are a few key features you can look for to define this genre:

  1. Realistic Setting with Magical Elements: The narrative unfolds in a recognizable, often mundane setting, into which magical elements are introduced without fanfare or explanation.
  2. Subtle Magic: The magical elements are typically understated, woven into the fabric of everyday life. They're not the main focus of the story but serve to deepen the narrative or develop characters.
  3. Cultural Specificity: Many works of magical realism draw heavily on the culture, history, and mythology of a specific place, infusing the story with a sense of local identity and tradition.
  4. Themes of Conflict: Magical realism often explores themes of conflict, such as the clash between tradition and modernity, the individual and society, or colonialism and cultural identity.
  5. Emotional Truth: Despite the fantastical elements, stories told in this mode seek to convey deep emotional or philosophical truths, using magic as a metaphor or allegory.

Examples of Magical Realism in Film and TV

what is magical realism



There are many great examples of magical realism in film and television. What makes it fun is that this genre-blending technique can cover multiple different storylines or be used to a different effect.

These works often use their magical components to explore complex themes, offering viewers a unique perspective on reality.

Here are notable examples that highlight the diversity and richness of magical realism in visual storytelling:


  1. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Directed by Guillermo del Toro
    • Set in post-Civil War Spain, this film tells the story of a young girl who escapes the harsh realities of her life through a fantastical labyrinth. The blend of historical context with mythical elements exemplifies magical realism's power to comment on the brutality of reality through the lens of fantasy.
  2. The Shape of Water (2017) - Directed by Guillermo del Toro
    • In Cold War-era America, a mute cleaning lady forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature held captive in a high-security government lab. This film uses its magical premise to explore themes of love, otherness, and the power of empathy.
  3. Amélie (2001) - Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
    • This whimsical narrative follows Amélie, a young woman who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better while grappling with her own isolation. The film is infused with a sense of wonder and charm that is characteristic of magical realism, transforming everyday Paris into a world of delightful possibilities.
  4. Big Fish (2003) - Directed by Tim Burton
    • A son investigates the fantastical tales of his dying father's life, trying to separate fact from fiction. The film's narrative structure, blending tall tales with real-life events, showcases the magical realism trope of storytelling and the blurred lines between reality and fantasy.
  5. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) - Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
    • This film features a washed-up actor, known for portraying an iconic superhero, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. The use of continuous shots and the protagonist's surreal experiences, including moments where he seems to possess superpowers, illustrate the genre's exploration of identity, reality, and artistry.

TV Shows

  1. Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017) - Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost
    • This cult classic blends crime, mystery, and supernatural elements in a small town. Its narrative is rich with magical realism, particularly in its portrayal of the surreal, dreamlike experiences of its characters, which reveal deeper truths about the town and its inhabitants.
  2. The Leftovers (2014-2017) - Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
    • Following the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of 2% of the world's population, this series delves into themes of grief, faith, and the human need for understanding. The inexplicable event and its aftermath are treated with a realism that grounds the show's more fantastical elements.
  3. Pushing Daisies (2007-2009) - Created by Bryan Fuller
    • This series centers on a pie-maker with the ability to bring dead things back to life with a touch—a magical ability that he uses to solve murders. The show combines whimsy, romance, and mystery, creating a brightly colored, fantastical world where death and life coexist.

The Impact of Magical Realism

The impact of magical realism on film and TV cannot be overstated. It offers filmmakers and storytellers a powerful tool to explore complex themes and emotions, allowing for a deeper engagement with the material.

By blending the real with the magical, these narratives can make the familiar seem strange and the extraordinary, accessible, inviting audiences to see the world through a new lens.

It's also a global phenomenon, with these stories popping up in cultures across the world, as far back as we have the written word.

Magical realism reminds us that reality is subjective and multifaceted, challenging our perceptions and inviting us to imagine beyond the boundaries of the conventional.

In a world that often feels all too real, the enchantment of magical realism provides a necessary escape, a space for reflection, and a means to confront the truths of our existence with wonder and awe.

Magical realism in film and TV serves as a bridge between the tangible and the fantastical, offering a unique narrative space where the extraordinary becomes part of the fabric of everyday life.

Through its subtle use of magic, it allows us to explore complex themes in a way that is both enchanting and profoundly human.

As more filmmakers and storytellers embrace this genre, we can look forward to a rich and varied tapestry of tales that challenge, delight, and inspire, reminding us of the magic that exists in the world around us.

Let me know what you think in the comments.