Over at Metafilter, they’re having a discussion on this Wired piece, which among other things details how the lava in The Return of the King is not quite right and how Gollum shouldn’t sink when he falls into it. I commented:
In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we’re going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?
[A]re you serious with this whole line of thought, or are you being funny and/or playing devil’s advocate? because while I can appreciate the latter two, I have a hard time actually believing that you believe that as soon as any work has any fantastic element in it, it becomes immune to any critiques of realism.
To which I made the comment that I’m reposting here, because the question hits on an issue I think is something to think about when thinking about fantasy and science fiction. Because it’s fairly long, I’ll post it without coding it as a quote. Here it is:
“When my daughter was much younger, my wife was reading to her from a picture book about a snowman who came to life and befriended a young boy, and on each page they would do a particular activity: build a snow fort, slide down a hill, enjoy a bowl of soup and so on. The last three pages had the snowman walking, then running, and then flying. At which point my wife got an unhappy look on her face and said ‘A flying snowman? That’s just ridiculous!’
“To which I said: ‘So you can accept a snowman eating hot soup, but not flying?’ Because, you know, if you can accept the former (not to mention the entire initial premise of a snowman coming to life), I’m not sure how the snowman flying became qualitatively more ridiculous.
“These days, I call the thing in a fantasy or science fiction work which throws out your suspension of disbelief a ‘Flying Snowman.’ And when someone encounters a Flying Snowman, and tells me about it, I ask them why it’s this particular thing that causes them problems when so many other things of equal ridiculousness fly under their radar.
“In this particular case, clearly insufficiently viscous lava is a Flying Snowman. What I’m asking is, in a film where one has already accepted so many other things which are physically impossible, ranging from Spiders of Unusual Size to millennia-old disembodied evil entities, it’s this thing that stands out.
“This is not to say that, when encountering fantasy work, one has to abandon all criticism. But if you’re going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.
“So, yeah: In a film with impossibly large spiders, talking trees, rings freighted with corrupting evil, Uruks birthed from mud (not to mention legions of ghost warriors and battle elephants larger than tanks), are we really going to complain about insufficiently dense lava? Because if you’re going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you’re giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you’re going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it’s okay to have it eat hot soup.”
So there: “Flying Snowmen.” Now you know what to call them when they happen. You’re welcome.
Update: Some further thoughts on the snowmen who fly, as they relate to science fiction film, at my FilmCritic.com column.