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With Into The West, a Harry Potter director honed his skill with magic

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has us thinking about fractured fairy tales.

Into The West (1992)
Mike Newell’s long directorial career has spun from small romances to blockbuster epics, but there’s often been an element of fantasy wish-fulfillment and iconic archetypes in his work, whether subtly in his film debut, The Man In The Iron Mask, or through broad magical thinking in Four Weddings And A Funeral, or overtly in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire or Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. His 1992 fable Into The West falls squarely between realism and pure fantasy, with a storyline that draws heavily on Irish/Scots myth, but attempts to ground it in some of the grimness that marks modern Irish storytelling.

Gabriel Byrne stars as the former King Of The Travellers, a once-reputed man among his Gypsy-like Irish tribe, until his wife died and he fell into depression and emotional collapse. When his two young sons (Rúaidhrí Conroy and Ciarán Fitzgerald) encounter a beautiful white horse named Tír na nÓg, Byrne promptly sells it, but the boys escape with it, setting off a hunt across the wilds of Ireland. The story draws heavily on Irish myth, particularly the story of Oisín, a sort of Irish Tam Lin who traveled on horseback to Tír na nÓg—“the land of eternal youth,” a sort of earthly paradise akin to Faerie—but returned when he got homesick, and found that centuries had passed in his absence, such that he shriveled and died when he dismounted. Into The West isn’t nearly as overt in its magic; it’s more akin to The Black Stallion or The Secret Of Roan Inish in its sense of fairy-tale wonder with only a light touch of fantasy. But it’s an achingly bittersweet and triumphant story, bolstered by strong performances, especially from the kid protagonists. It’s the rare family film that’s sentimental yet not sticky-sweet, and exciting enough to keep older and younger viewers occupied.

Availability: Available on DVD from Miramax, or streaming on Netflix Instant.