One of the first things we learn as children is that if you believe in something, it can happen. Even though you probably didn't get that pony you wished for way back when, who's to say that you're a nutjob for thinking it still might come galloping into your life? Some fantasies prove that your faith and dedication to something is strong enough to move mountains. Other times, those ideas turn into delusions and only the men in white coats can save you.
Crazy or not, filmmakers and screenwriters love these characters because we identify with them and always want to root for the underdog. The true believer in cinema faces incredible odds and obstacles -- making their vindication all the more gratifying when it finally comes.
The holidays are a season for believing -- a time when dreams can and do come true, not matter how long the odds. In celebration of this special season, we've selected 13 films that highlight the power of belief. Sure, some of these characters have a few loose screws, but each of them teaches us something about keeping the faith and holding on to our dreams. Judge for yourself after the jump. [spoilers ahead]
Haley Joel Osment in 'The Sixth Sense'
What He Believed: Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) didn't have very good luck with his last patient. When he meets Cole Sear (Osment), his confidence in his abilities are minimal at best, but he dedicates himself to helping the troubled child. After the two form a bond, Cole reveals to the doc that he sees dead people -- ghosts, essentially -- but these aren't the sheet-with-eyeholes kind of spirits and some of them are downright nasty.
Why It's Unbelievable: Duh, they're ghosts and no one else can see them. Plus, he's just a kid and children's imaginations tend to run a bit wild. Everyone had Cole pegged as a brooding, emo or goth kid in training -- but really he was just terrified of the things he saw.
Verdict: Not dead! Err ... not crazy! Cole is one brave little boy, and all his marbles are intact. Not only does he convince Crowe that he's not a delusional freak, he helps the doctor face his own uneasy past -- which eventually leads him to discover that he's actually a ghost too. In the end, Cole feels close enough to his mom again that he tells her his secret as well. And the ghosts win, too, since Cole uses his gift to help them finish some of their unfinished, Earthly business. If he's lucky, Cole can look forward to a promising career with the Syfy channel or daytime talk shows.
Max Records in 'Where the Wild Things Are'
What He Believed: Rambunctious, eight-year-old Max has big energy and an even bigger imagination. When he runs away from home after a fight with his mom he turns up on an island full of giant monsters. To save himself from being eaten, he dubs himself a great king with magical powers and infiltrates their strange world.
Why It's Unbelievable: Max's parents are divorced, and he's been acting out ever since. He behaves like an animal, fights with his sister, and even bites his own mom. It might be more unbelievable that in today's world, Max wasn't pumped full of Ritalin. Most importantly, we've all read the book, Spike Jonze -- so we're onto you!
Verdict: Just wild, not looney tunes. Max is just a troubled kid who needs more attention from his family. After a rabies shots and a little TLC, he'll mend his ways.
Pascal Lamorisse in 'The Red Balloon'
What He Believed: Pascal (Lamorisse) is just an average French schoolboy doing what all French schoolboys do -- wandering cobblestone streets and looking like they should be begging for porridge. He comes across a red balloon which appears to have a mind of its own and follows him home. The two become fast friends.
Why It's Unbelievable: Inanimate objects don't have a will of their own (right!?). Plus, it's a little creepy to think of a balloon and a boy as best friendsies.
Verdict: Free-spirited and totally sane. It turns out that Pascal hasn't been secretly inhaling too much helium -- he's telling the truth! This balloon really does have a genuine affection for him ... but it's not just that one balloon. Pascal meets a girl with a similar balloon friend; and after a group of bullies destroy the red one, a cluster of other balloons come to Pascal's rescue and take him for a ride across the Paris skyline.
Ciaran Fitzgerald and Ruaidhri Conroy in 'Into the West'
What They Believed: Tito (Conroy) and Ossie (Fitzgerald) come from a family of Irish Travellers -- gypsies full of folktales, outcasts even in their own land. When the boys meet a beautiful white horse named Tír na nÓg, they dream of becoming cowboys and escaping their dreary home life (Gabriel Byrne plays dad, who is kind of a downer) so they all run away. It doesn't take long before they realize that this isn't just any horse and that he seems to have all the mystical powers that they've only heard about in stories.
Why It's Unbelievable: We all know that the only magical, white horses out there are the unicorns and pegasuses that live in the clouds. Seriously though, Tito and Ossie are two little kids with big imaginations who live a miserable existence. Their father is a complete mess after losing his wife, and he's totally given up on life. Chances are, this is all just a hoax, right?
Verdict: Mystic heroes. We never really know for sure if Tír na nÓg is actually a magical creature, or if the stress of life made the boys more susceptible to fantasy. It doesn't matter, because Tito and Ossie helped their dad find his fire once more. The important thing is that this family gets back on track and is reminded of the true meaning of love, faith, and spirit.
Sean Astin in 'Rudy'
What He Believed: Even though he's on the small side, has shoddy grades, and comes from a working class family, Daniel Eugene "Rudy" Ruettiger has big football dreams. While he could settle for a life at the local steel mill like his dad, he instead follows his heart and sets out to play for the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame.
Why It's Unbelievable: Rudy hits a series of roadblocks that makes it seem impossible for him to achieve his goal. He loses his best friend in a factory explosion, doesn't get into Notre Dame, and then discovers he has a learning disability that affects his grades. Eventually the footballer makes it on the team, but a new coach refuses to let him play.
Verdict: Doggedly determined and dealing with a full deck. While it may seem like the young athlete has been hit in the head too many times with a football, he honestly just has real chutzpah. Rudy never gives up and wins the respect of his teammates who help him play in that final game and prove that he can win one for the team -- and the Gipper.
Jodie Foster in 'Contact'
What She Believed: Dr. Ellie Arroway (Foster) is a smarty pants scientist who works for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). After years with no success, Arroway finally gets the proof she's been looking for -- a strong signal which repeats a sequence of prime numbers and is emitted from the Vega star. After a lot of political hullabaloo, Ellie travels the time-space continuum and believes she makes contact with an alien.
Why It's Unbelievable: Time travel and aliens have a crazy-person stigma associated with them. Also, even though Ellie's a scientist, it seems odd that after years of finding nothing, once her funding is threatened she suddenly comes up with the proof that little green men really do exist.
Verdict: Undetermined. Arroway might be dipping into the conspiracy theory pool or she may be onto something, but we'll never really know. She's accused of collaborating with the billionaire who funds SETI to set up an elaborate hoax, but is eventually given a pass after pleading with a congressional committee to take her testimony on faith. She asks them to accept that the strange static on her recording device serves as evidence that something abnormal occurred. Really the congressional committee probably just accepted that it's never wise to be ornery around our alien overlords.
Jimmy Stewart in 'Harvey'
What He Believed: Elwood P. Dowd believes his best friend is an invisible, giant, friendly, shapeshifter-goblin-rabbit named Harvey. 'Nuff said.
Why It's Unbelievable: Dowd is a bit of a social misfit who has a penchant for booze. Also, his buddy is a mythological creature, and myths aren't always the most reliable source -- especially when you're talking about a six-foot-tall invisible bunny.
Verdict: Probably cuckoo. When we learn others can see Harvey -- including one of the doctors -- it's a leap of faith ending for this strange story. Elwood may just be a wounded eccentric whose unusual life philosophy has rubbed off on those around him, or he might be worthy of that spot in the loony bin where his family tries to lock him up. He describes Harvey as a "pooka" and we learn that these creatures supposedly exist in Celtic myth, but again -- that's not really saying much.
Fred Savage in 'Little Monsters'
What He Believed: Brian (Savage) has been a bit blue since moving to a new city. Even more frustrating is the fact that he's getting blamed for some accidents that keep happening around the house. Turns out there's a monster named Maurice living under his bed in a child's wonderland -- no rules and no parents! There's a reason the monsters live under children's beds, though -- they are sent there to turn little kids into monsters, too. When Maurice fails to transform Brian into a creepy creature, a monster named Snik kidnaps Brian's little brother Eric.
Why It's Unbelievable: Parents always tell their children that there aren't monsters under their bed or in their closets. Plus, Brian's been having a rough time of things since the move, so it seems more likely that this is his imagination versus an actual monster. Brothers always try to one up each other on stuff like this, and this surely isn't the first time that Brian's imagined his brother being sent away because he was mad at him.
Verdict: Kid hero! The only crazy one around here is Howie Mandel, who plays Maurice -- nice career move, pal. Brian's just a normal kid with an overactive imagination.
Russell Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind'
What He Believed: John Nash (Crowe) is a brilliant mathematician who starts to have delusions about being on a top secret mission for the Department of Defense to decode Soviet messages. Nash becomes increasingly paranoid and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital by his wife. He's convinced that the doctors are really Soviet kidnappers and that they've implanted a listening device in his arm. Later, Nash's only friend Charles -- who has a young niece named Marcee that sticks to him like glue -- tries to convince the bewildered genius to shoot his own wife.
Why It's Unbelievable: This guy doesn't just have one person after him, he's got an entire army of people after him -- and not even his best friend can be trusted? Clearly the guy is smart enough to concoct an elaborate story and convince us all that he's telling the truth.
Verdict: Legitimately ill, and still smarter than your average bear. Turns out that John isn't a desperate, bored geek looking for attention. He's a paranoid schizophrenic who was bright enough to realize that Charles and Marcee aren't real because Marcee has never aged in all the time he's known her. His wife helped him understand his illness too and thankfully they walk off into the sunset together after Nash wins the Nobel Prize in economics.
Edmund Gwenn in 'Miracle on 34th Street'
What He Believed: Kris Kringle (Gwenn) becomes Macy's rock-star Santa Claus, generating great publicity for the New York City department store and lighting up the eyes of children everywhere. Everyone's a bit skeptical about Kringle's mental stability, however, when he starts claiming that he really is Santa -- hey, this is New York we're talking about -- and eventually he gets locked up in the loony bin.
Why It's Unbelievable: Kringle's just an old dude in a nursing home, and being the center of attention during the holidays is probably something the poor guy is craving. Insert Sophia Petrillo quote here.
Verdict: Uncertain. It's another chin-scratcher ending, but in the spirit of the holidays, we'll let Kringle get away with his merry shenanigans. The children and Macy's love Kringle so much they rescue him from a court hearing after proving that the jolly man in red isn't cracking up. Kringle makes one little girl's dream come true and wins over the Macy's event director -- who is portrayed as an icy, bitter divorcee (since this was the '40s). In the end, it really doesn't matter if Kringle's just a crazy, old bat in a Santa outfit, or not. He's a reminder that dreams can come true if you just believe.
Craig Warnock in 'Time Bandits'
What He Believed: Although Kevin (Warnock) is only 11 years old, he's become an Ancient Greece armchair scholar thanks to his busybody, competitive parents ignoring him most of the time. One night a band of dwarves accidentally invade his bedroom and he traverses time with them hunting treasure. A big baddie who goes by the name of Evil (why mince words?) confronts the gang in an ultimate showdown.
Why It's Unbelievable: Time travel, dwarves, fortresses of ultimate darkness? Besides, the movies taught us that time travel's only possible when there's a flux capacitor involved ... It'd be easy to conclude that this kid was telling a huge fib because he was invisible to his own family.
Verdict: Courageous kid. Kevin's not crazy, but his parents are for touching the "evil" black rock inside their toaster oven after Kevin warns them not to. They explode into a splattery mess and leave little Kev an orphan. At least he still has dwarves and supreme beings to hang out with. While it's pretty clear that Kevin was probably just imagining his adventures in the midst of a homicidal, somnambulistic episode -- this is Terry Gilliam's universe, so anything's possible.
Robin Williams in 'The Fisher King'
What He Believed: Delusional Arthurian adventures abound in this second Gilliam film on our list (maybe the director himself should be on here given his wonky production history) where Parry (Williams) -- a homeless man off his rocker -- is convinced he's the Fisher King on a mission to find the Holy Grail. He befriends a despondent shock jock radio host named Jack (Jeff Bridges) after saving his life. Jack accompanies Parry on his mission (mainly out of guilt for indirectly causing his wife's murder, thus creating Parry's hallucinations), but Parry may not be able to conquer the "Red Knight" -- a figment of the former professor's imagination that haunts his lovelorn ego.
Why it's Unbelievable: Tramps, vagrants, street people, beggars -- call them what you like, but the homeless don't get much respect from the general population. Even though this was before Robin Williams became a parody of a parody of a parody, he plays crazy too well for us to come to any other conclusion.
Verdict: Nuttier than a peanut. Parry is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but he had good reason. His wife was murdered, he lapsed into a catatonic state, he was living on the streets ... all things considered, a King Arthur fantasy world doesn't seem so bad. Besides, he wouldn't have been able to find love again, or help Jack reunite with his girlfriend, had he not been a ranting homeless guy.
Dakota Fanning in 'Coraline'
What She Believed: Coraline is a clever, outgoing young girl whose curiosity leads her to an "Other World" where her uber busy mom and dad are represented by doting doppelgängers. In Coraline's parallel universe, everything is wonderful and she wants to stay there forever -- until her Other Mother tries to sew buttons on her face in place of her eyes.
Why it's Unbelievable: When you start chattering about hanging out in alternate realities and you're just a kid -- the cards are pretty much stacked against you. Coraline's also been feeling neglected by her parents.
Verdict: Sharp as a knife. When it comes to animated movies, everything is fair game. Coraline's not insane -- she just let her vibrant imagination get the better of her. Her contact with the ghost children in the Other World -- those who didn't want to go back home to their real parents -- gave her ammo for some interesting stories. Even better, she was able to comfort her landlady with tales of her long lost sister (who turned out to be one of the ghost children).
Henry Thomas in 'Cloak & Dagger'
What He Believed: The bond between a father and son is a special thing, but Davey's (Thomas) dad has had a hard time relating to that sentiment since his wife died. In response, Davey immerses himself in his favorite video/roleplaying game -- 'Cloak & Dagger.' He idolizes the central character so much he imagines him in the form of his father, and gets lost in the exciting world of the spy-thriller game. Davey witnesses a murder and tries to solve the crime with the help of his favorite hero.
Why it's Unbelievable: Davey comes across as a kid who plays too many videogames. He even pretends that his water gun is a real pistol and that a ball is a grenade. Everyone's pretty much humoring the poor kid when he starts to ramble on and on about secret agents and murder plots.
Verdict: Gaming genius! It's true, Davey's a kid who plays too many videogames -- but that worked in his favor when he cracked the case, escaped the bad guys, and reunited with his best friend. Davey's a lonely kid, but his fantasy world was an asset to his real life adventures.