I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to. Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits. It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn. It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City. It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.
Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling. While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison. You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell. Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios. Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed. In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande. The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable. All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book. As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy. The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar. His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love. There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past. Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one. Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.
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