1. Magic wishing dust, 13 Going On 30 (2004)
From body-swaps to rapping genies, magic plays an important role in comedies, and a contrived one as well. More often than not, magical items have no logic beyond providing filmmakers with a convenient excuse to do whatever they want to do. Few, however, are as thinly conceived as the time-warping device that turns 13-year-old Alexandra Kyle into an all-grown-up Jennifer Garner in 2004’s 13 Going On 30: a packet of magic wishing dust given to her by her crushed-out best friend. When a birthday party goes terribly awry thanks to the cruelty of some popular kids Kyle hoped to impress, the magic wishing dust kicks into action and grants her wish of becoming “30, flirty, and thriving.” How? It’s magic wishing dust, that’s how.
2. The Twonky, The Twonky (1953)
When this whimsical science-fiction film was made, it must have seemed easy to leap to the conclusion that television was magical, alien, and probably up to no good. (The original short story “The Twonky” explained the origins of the eponymous device—you know, just the usual lost, Twonky-building, dimension-hopping amnesiac—but the film doesn’t.) Hans Conried, the thinking man’s Dr. Zachary Smith, plays a philosophy professor who views the new TV set his wife has introduced to their home as an unwelcome, dangerous intruder. That’s even before he learns that the set is ambulatory and has the ability to perform household chores, shoot fiery laser beams, control people’s minds, and print counterfeit money. Sadly, Conried’s death in 1982 prevented him from seeing the idea taken to its logical extreme in David Cronenberg’s unofficial remake, Videodrome.
3. Magical crab, Simply Irresistible (1999)
Unlucky in love? Try the crab. That’s what hapless chef Sarah Michelle Gellar learns when she receives a magical crab from playwright Christopher Durang. What can the crab do? The film leaves its powers pretty vague. Mostly, it allows the film to borrow liberally from Like Water For Chocolate by letting Gellar prepare emotion-stirring dishes that move those who consume them to tears, when they aren’t stirring other passions.
4. A hot tub that’s also a time machine, Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
The mechanism that transports Hot Tub Time Machine’s troop of dissatisfied doofuses back to the ’80s is half-assedly nonsensical, which attests to this film’s concealed razor edge. Plenty of other goofy comedies get their chaos from silly-cute magical plot devices, but HTTM’s is so ridiculous that it gets top billing, as if some studio exec forgot to update a high-concept working title. And while other goofy comedies resolve with lessons learned and everyone the wiser, HTTM’s ending is so wildly happy that it quickly sours. Ostensibly a raucous goof, Steve Pink’s film never lets audiences forget that midlife malaise won’t actually be cured by nostalgia, mystical-Jacuzzi-enabled or not.
5. Magical sneakers, Like Mike (2002)
Sure, magical coins, amulets, and dust are effective. But they are so clichéd. Magic basketball shoes? Now we’re talking. Produced in conjunction with the NBA, Like Mike transforms teen orphan Bow Wow from nobody to all-star thanks to the power of a pair of magical sneakers. Bow Wow obtains the shoes from a thrift shop, thinking the initials “MJ” written on them mean they once belonged to Michael Jordan. A pre-Friday Night Lights Jesse Plemons (years before terrorizing Dillon, Texas with music and murder) throws said shoes onto a power line that gets hit by lightning as Bow Wow tries to rescue them during a rainstorm. And voilà: Not only can Bow Wow suddenly dunk on David Robinson, but he and his buddy Jonathan Lipnicki suddenly become adoptable. And thus a nation of orphans stopped looking for parents and started looking for sneakers hanging from power lines.
6. Golden Tablet Of Akhmenrah, Night At The Museum (2006)
Here’s the thing about history: It’s apparently really dull if passively displayed for would-be scholars. It would be much more helpful and entertaining if the past could just come to life and play catch with us. Enter the Golden Tablet Of Akhmenrah from the Night At The Museum franchise. Brought to the American Museum Of Natural History in 1952, it has the power to bring the entire museum to life each night. But any exhibits caught outside the museum walls at dawn turn to dust. That’s a pretty specific power, but one well-suited to bringing loads of kids into the theaters, so bravo! But as we learn in the sequel, Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, it can also open up a portal to the underworld and unleash an undead army. This dichotomy makes the Golden Tablet Of Akhmenrah the Swiss Army knife of magical cinematic objects.
7. Magical wishing-fountain coins, When In Rome (2010)
Who knew that coins tossed into a legendary Roman fountain automatically become magical? Certainly not lovelorn museum curator Kristin Bell, who drunkenly picks up a handful of them in a fit of misery after a brief flirtation with handsome, blandsome Josh Duhamel goes awry. But as it turns out, when she claims those coins, the men who threw them into the fountain—each of them presumably wishing for love at the time—suddenly fall in obsessive love with her. That’s the whole plot: Magical coins equal slapstick comedy, as her enchantment-addled suitors all express their “love” in the most embarrassing, inconveniencing way possible. Before she knows it, Dax Shepard is stripping in public in the hopes that she’ll admire his body, Jon Heder is breaking into her apartment to set up furniture-smashing magic tricks for her, and Danny DeVito is offering her his plump, juicy sausage. (He’s a sausage manufacturer, but that doesn’t make the gesture any less suggestive.) Moral: Don’t steal. And if you have to steal, don’t steal enchanted coins that drive plotlines and comedy (to the degree that either word is appropriate here) by turning people into drooling idiots. Though who among us hasn’t done that from time to time?
8. Golden ticket, Last Action Hero (1993)
The golden ticket in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory had nothing on Last Action Hero’s magical golden ticket, a completely unexplained MacGuffin that lets people travel into movies, and movie characters travel into the real world—much like the magical spike in the previous year’s Cool World, only much more garishly and obviously symbolic. Because movie tickets are always magical portals to adventure in some sense, right? Unless they’re magical portals to overwrought films like Last Action Hero, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like character, tries for light self-parody, and achieves only jokes as thuddingly obvious as the idea of a magical movie ticket.
9. The mask, The Mask (1994)
The magical talisman in The Mask basically just transforms its wearers into stronger, ruder, greener versions of themselves. Such is the case in The Mask, in which wimpy Jim Carrey finds a mysterious mask floating in the river and does what we would all do with something we found in the river: puts it on his face. The mask then turns Carrey (as well as anyone else who wears it, including his dog) into a green-faced Mr. Hyde who gains a cartoonish imperviousness to physical harm. There is some backstory about how the mask is the physical embodiment of the banished Norse god Loki, but there’s nothing in Norse mythology to explain whether Loki had a fondness for yellow zoot suits and frenetic dancing abilities.
10. Enchanted African earrings, The Hot Chick (2002)
While The Mask only barely explains the legend behind its enchanted body-swapping talisman, The Hot Chick is more diligent. It’s revealed early in the movie that the earrings that cause mean girl Rachel McAdams and crook Rob Schneider to switch bodies have history: In 50 B.C., an African princess used the magical jewelry to switch bodies with a slave girl to avoid an arranged marriage. Two thousand years later, McAdams steals the earrings from an African store at the mall. (Every mall has one.) Hijinks ensue after Schneider nabs one of the earrings in a holdup and the two later try one earring on at the same time. Thank goodness for the backstory, or it would all just seem silly.
11. Enchanted fortune cookies, Freaky Friday (2003)
Audiences have been wondering since 1976 what caused mother and daughter Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster to swap bodies in the original Disney comedy Freaky Friday, which offered no explanation for the switch. Not so the 2003 remake, however, which features a kindly/meddling old Chinese lady who hears Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis fighting about how their lives are so different and they’ll never understand each other. The mother and daughter put their differences aside long enough to crack open some enchanted fortune cookies, and the next morning: blammo. Mother and daughter swap bodies, and this time, no one has to wonder why.
12. Borgia ring, The Shaggy Dog (1959) / The Shaggy D.A. (1976)
The plot of Disney’s The Shaggy Dog would have us believe that the Borgia family owned a ring that let them use the power of shape-shifting against their enemies (although that tidbit hasn’t gotten a great deal of play in the current Showtime series about the dynasty). Conveniently, this very ring accidentally lands in the pants cuff of high-school student Tommy Kirk while he’s on a museum tour. When Kirk later discovers the ring and reads its inscription aloud (“In canis corpore transmuto!”), he turns into a sheepdog. Hilarious misadventures ensue, involving such popular late-’50s elements as spies, hot rods, Fred MacMurray, and Annette Funicello, but by the end of the film, Kirk has once again returned to human form, where he stayed for the better part of two decades. In 1976, however, Disney revived his character—now played by studio stalwart Dean Jones—and switched up the mythos of the Borgia ring so that anyone reading the inscription would cause Jones to transform into a sheepdog. Are there further hilarious misadventures? With a cast featuring Tim Conway, Jo Anne Worley, Pat McCormick, Vic Tayback, and Hans Conreid (again!), what do you think?
13. Magic boombox, Kazaam (1996)
Yes, a magic boom box… although for what it’s worth, the magic doesn’t get all up in said boom box until a wrecking ball causes a magic lamp to be knocked onto the boom box. The event in question takes place during the opening moments of this Shaquille O’Neal vehicle, and before long, Francis Capra (later of Veronica Mars) stumbles upon the magical item while trying to escape from a pack of bullies. Out pops Shaq as the genie Kazaam, who, as is de rigueur for individuals working in the genie profession, offers Capra three wishes. Alas, Capra’s wishes either tend to fall outside Kazaam’s conveniently limited abilities, or they get in the way of Kazaam’s side gig as a rapper. In the end, Shaq still finds an excuse to do a slam dunk, and Kazaam gets promoted, presumably to new digs which are far less embarrassing than a boom box.
14. Phone booth, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1992)
Even though a phone booth seems like an antiquated way to move through time now, in 1989 it didn’t seem all that odd that George Carlin would use one to guide buddies Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. It was as modern a means of communication as most people could muster in those mostly-pre-cell-phone days, and an inconspicuous way to help the slackers gather the historical figures they needed to make a kick-ass presentation at a school assembly, keeping them from having to repeat the year because of their lazy ways. The booth shows up in the sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, mostly to transport the evil robot Bill and Ted that are sent from the future to kill the real ones. However, their ignorance about how to steer and direct the phone booth leads to a funny demise.
15. Satanic satellite dish, Stay Tuned (1992)
You’d think John Ritter and Pam Dawber would guess their new TV system came from Satan himself, since they now get 666 channels, but everything on their TV is now a skewed, satirical version of what’s on actual TV. But thanks to the devilish plan (which doesn’t include HBO, naturally), they’re soon sucked into their television and forced to fight for their lives through a variety of sketch-like parodies of TV shows that were popular at the time of the film’s production. When Ritter is freed while Dawber remains trapped inside TV world thanks to the devil’s acute understanding of legalese, he goes back in, armed with a magic remote control—of course. Meant to be a blandly satirical morality tale about watching too much TV, Stay Tuned instead seems to argue that if all signs in your new contract point to Satan, look for the horns and cloven hooves.
16. Magic remote control, Click (2006)
The folks behind Adam Sandler vehicle Click expanded on that idea of a magic remote control, adding the joke all sitcom husbands tired of listening to their wives pull at one point or another: pointing the remote at something and hitting “mute” or “fast-forward” or “off” to get past the boring stuff. Sandler finds the remote in the “beyond” section of his local Bed, Bath, & Beyond, and like all magical movie objects, the remote control teaches him a suitably ironic lesson: Life is not to be fast-forwarded through. It’s mean to be lived—particularly when you’re married to Kate Beckinsale. And yet the film somehow doesn’t exploit much of the fun in having a magic remote. It mostly sticks to lame jokes about messing with time and moments where Sandler—in terrible old-man makeup—realizes all he’s lost and attempts to wring tears from hearts hardened by jokes about dogs humping stuffed animals.