Magic Temple was one of the most popular children’s films in 1996. We watched it repeatedly on cable tv when I was too young to appreciate its depth. When I heard it was being restored and shown on the big screen again, I knew I had to watch it. So I did, with my fellow 90s kid friends.
I’m not a movie buff. If I say things like “ang ganda ng cinematography” and “the musical scoring was first-rate”, chances are I’m being pretentious. But, like everyone else, I love a good story. And I like them better when I have a good story-teller.
Above all else, the strength of Magic Temple was its story- so simple, and yet so layered. Special effects are dated, and even good acting is subjective, but a good story speaks 20 years after its time, and beyond.
In a nutshell, the was just three kids with a bit of power on a mission. But the mission required a journey, and there we had the best setting for a fantasy film. There were plot bunnies all over the film, and they were not woven seamlessly into the main mission, but because the main characters were kids- easily distracted, excited to undergo tasks, and with plenty to learn- the plot bunnies worked well. In fact, the movie would have been boring without Jasmine, the ghost whose bones they needed to recover and without Telang Bayawak, who is easily the most interesting supporting character in the film.
Even the extras, like the goatmen who shared their meal to them were stories worth exploring. Their few minutes on screen were there (for laughs and) for the boys to learn not to judge based on what is easily seen- a lesson they repeatedly forget and relearn all over again.
I was tempted to excuse off the kids’ outright disregard for instructions, and their annoyingly short memory, to them being kids. But on second thought, it is a perfect metaphor for practically every person. In so many ways, we all are still children- out of focus, unmindful of rules, needing to learn things again and again and again. And often, those mistakes cost us a lot- in Magic Temple, forgetting Telang Bayawak’s instructions to ignore invitations to dance cost them the whole side mission. But then, the characters do what’s typical of kids- they barely commiserate their loss; instead, they reassure one another that they will try it again on another day. If it were me, I’d be conducting a play-by-play SWOT analysis of the perceived defeat. But kids often choose to learn through experience. We watch the three learn and forget and relearn, and, despite the self-reflection and the consistent over-analysis, I’ve watched myself do the same, too.
The film is even more poignant when we learn that, in fact, the three kids are a metaphor for the three major islands of our country. Jubal is Luzon, Omar is Mindanao, and Sambag is Visayas. In a time of political divisiveness, the message of the movie is made more important. Listen to me say “the message”, like there’s only one. We know there’s a million- don’t judge based on what is seen; monsters are humans, too; remember what you learn; choose the hard path, etc etc. But Sambag, the narrator, said it himself- the story is about unity. And it is about overcoming individual weaknesses- insecurity, hot-headedness, disobedience- in the service of the team.
The film also crams these interesting characters and possible plot bunnies and leaves them a somewhat hanging but it’s a good reminder that these characters do not exist only in the main trio’s universe. They have whole other identities, lives, problems completely divorced from the kids’ mission.
It is precisely this undercurrent of uncertainty, of the movie being just a tiny molecule in an undiscovered universe of fantasy, which makes me find it so beautifully reminiscent of one of my favorite fantasy novels. I find the whole package so poignant that it doesn’t even feel sacrilegious to call it the kiddie movie version of Stardust.
With a back out and fade plus music kind of ending, the film did succeed in giving a “happy ever after” feel to its conclusion. And yet, there’s also a wistful feeling to it- the desire to know what happens next, what’s happening to the other characters. The contradiction it succeeds in eliciting is pure genius.
With the little bit of maturity these past 20 years have afforded me- the kind that allows me to let the world turn without my having to know all its whys and hows, I find that my 24 year old self appreciates Magic Temple more than the kiddie me did, and that’s saying a lot.
Did Magic Temple pass the test of time? It certainly did, with flying, magical colors. #