Michael's Five Favorite Travel Movies
Three drag queens walk into a desert. Some hobbits leave on a journey. And a guy dives deep.
I’ve wanted to travel for as long as I can remember.
Sometimes I wonder why. Was it a trip I took as a small child? An adventurous relative or family friend that inspired my imagination?
Except I’m pretty sure it was books and movies.
When I read the The Chronicles of Narnia as an eight-year-old, I was certain I would one day find myself in a magical land with talking beavers and friendly fauns. I searched the back of a lot of wardrobes and closets trying to find my own Narnia.
And after watching Disney’s adaptation of The Swiss Family Robinson, I absolutely yearned to be shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. (A few decades later, Tom Hanks’ Castaway cured me of that particular yearning.)
But nothing has cured me of my love for travel. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.
Here are my favorite five(-ish) travel movies that have continued to stoke my desire to get the hell out on the road.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
This movie blew my mind.
Sure, I’d seen road trip movies before. But ones featuring drag queens traveling across the Australian Outback? In a lavender-painted tour bus named Priscilla?
This was in 1994, long before you saw many movies with LGBTQ characters — especially movies that weren’t about AIDS and death and dying.
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert even had an actual movie star playing one of the drag queens — Terence Stamp — and two other actors who would go on to become huge movie stars, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce.
Almost everything about this movie works, especially the incredible costumes, despite the fact that the movie was made on a shoestring budget of two million dollars. In filmmaking, creativity really is almost everything.
The contrast between those fabulous costumes and the stark, unforgiving desert is another aspect of the movie that works so perfectly.
In addition to being a road trip movie, Priscilla is also a fish-out-of-water comedy. Drag queens in the Australian Outback?
But are the drag queens really so out of place here? There’s a wonderful meeting of the queens and the native Aborigines when Priscilla breaks down in the middle of nowhere.
A local Aboriginal man takes Mitzi (Weaving), Felecia (Pearce), and Bernadette (Stamp), to his small town. In one indelible scene, the three drag queens lip-synch “I Will Survive” to the fascinated Aboriginal crowd.
Only to then invite an especially enthusiastic man into their act! They make him up in drag and start the song again with native musicians now adding musical accompaniment to their disco.
The lesson, of course, is that sometimes we have more in common than we think.
Toward the end of the film, Felecia, Mitzi, and Bernadette agree to fulfill one of Felicia’s lifelong dreams: climb to the top of King’s Canyon in the middle of the Outback bedecked out in their fabulous drag costumes.
The camera tracks the progress of the three drag queens as they defy the blazing heat and steep rocky ground to ascend to a dramatic overlook.
There, as they stare out across the emptiness before them, Bernadette says, “It never ends, does it? All that space.”
Sometimes the emptiness of the world does seem endless. But maybe it wouldn’t seem so empty if more of us realized that we’re all more alike than we are different.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) / The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
I said before I read The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and I also read (and loved) The Lord of the Rings. This was long before they were adapted as movies, but the film versions definitely didn’t disappoint.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the movie version of the first Chronicles book, did an amazing job showing Lucy stepping through that wardrobe into the snow-covered forests of Narnia, a look of absolute wonder on her face.
(Famously, the director of the movie was able to show us the young actress Georgie Henley’s actual expression of wonder, because he brought her to the set of fake snow blindfolded, so he could get the most authentic performance possible.)
I still haven’t made it to Narnia — so far — but I’m pretty sure I had the same expression of wonder on my face when I landed in Sydney, Australia, in 1982, to be a high school exchange student. When I stepped off of the plane and smelled the lush, humid air, and saw the strange trees in the distance, I knew I was somewhere very far from home.
And I loved it!
And I hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.
The Lord of the Rings books had a slightly different impact on me. I felt less a sense of wonder and more a desire for adventure.
I wasn’t looking for ringwraiths and balrogs, but I’d put up with them in order to be able to go deep into the Mines of Moria, explore Fangorn Forest, and climb the Misty Mountains. I even wanted to try to go over icy Mount Caradhras like Frodo and his friends.
And the movies rekindled those feelings in me too.
I never did those things either — so far — but in my twenties, inspired by Frodo and company, I did return to Australia, and also headed over to New Zealand, where I trekked up mountains, explored some caves, and hiked plenty of forests.
Like Frodo, I even ventured up to the front of an icy glacier a lot like Mount Caradhras. And like Frodo, I almost died when it collapsed right after I left.
Oh, the folly of youth.
Like Frodo, I also made it safely home. But before too long, I left again with my husband Brent, and now we’re documenting everything, just like Frodo (and Bilbo), in this newsletter — our digital version of There and Back Again.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
This is the story of two women — Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) — who just want a fun, carefree weekend away from their unhappy lives.
Unfortunately, Thelma is sexually assaulted, and Louise shoots and kills the assaulter, so they soon find themselves on the run from the law.
The physical landscape mirrors their situation. Thelma’s and Louise’s journey begins in Arkansas, all green trees and lush grass, but soon enters the harsh desert of the American southwest.
The sun is blazing and unforgiving.
Along the way, Thelma is transformed from a flighty housewife into a tough, rawboned woman no longer willing to take her husband’s abuse. Meanwhile, the journey whittles away some of Louise’s already tough exterior, making her vulnerable at last, at least with Thelma.
Then there’s that famous ending. Is it terrible? It is great? Depressing or uplifting?
During their final hours, they drive through the night staring in wonder at cliffs and stone formations standing as silent witnesses to their journey. As dawn approaches, there is a clarity in the cool morning air mirrored in the faces of the two women who have finally realized there is no escaping the consequences of their actions.
When it comes to travel, people always say it’s about the journey, not the destination.
But in this movie, the journey is about both. They have to die, but that means — for the first time in their lives, for a little while anyway — they were both able to live.
After all, what’s the point of a journey if it doesn’t take us somewhere new?
My Octopus Teacher (2020)
The buzz for this Netflix movie was obviously off the charts, and it went on to (deservedly) win the Oscar for Best Documentary.
But is it a “travel movie”? Bear with me on this one for a minute, okay?
For starters, the movie takes viewers not to just South Africa — a pretty remote place for most of us — but to Cape Peninsula, almost at the very tip of Africa.
And then it goes farther still, into and under the ocean itself.
Filmmaker Craig Foster takes us into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. We join him him as he explores kelp forests of shimmering emerald, swims along the reef-studded ocean floor, and encounters an astonishing array of sea life.
They say the best part of travel is the people you meet. That these new friends teach us things we never would have imagined — things about ourselves and our place in the world.
In this movie’s case, Foster’s new friend isn’t a “person” doing the teaching, but an octopus.
Yes, over a period of twelve months, Foster literally has a relationship with this octopus. Since octopuses age so much faster than humans, Foster’s new friend lives half her two-year life right before his eyes: showing him the reef, almost dying in a shark attack, learning new ways to disguise herself, laying a clutch of eggs, and, well, I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it yet.
In the process, the octopus teaches him about the ebb and flow of life, the importance of persistence, and the interconnectedness of all things — literally, when she reaches out to touch him. Through their shared experiences, he even learns to reconnect with his own passions, and most importantly, his wife and son.
In the end, Foster’s journey into the ocean changes him in ways he had never imagined.
Which makes for the best kind of travel.
So, yup, My Octopus Teacher is a travel movie. And it’s one of the greats.
The Star Trek Movies (1979, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2009, 2013, 2016)
Okay, the Star Trek franchise is famous, first and foremost, for being a series of TV shows that were later adapted as movies. So is it cheating (again) if I say that these movies are some of my favorite “travel” movies?
Maybe so, but I’m still going with it. I mean, these shows, er, movies are literally about traveling to the farthest reaches of the galaxy!
But as fantastical and exotic as these destinations are, I think the true appeal of Star Trek is the show’s optimistic, humanistic point of view.
As Kirk, Picard, and then a new Kirk travel the stars with their various crews, it’s the alien beings they meet that make the greatest impressions — and, of course, the crews’ interactions with each other.
Not all the Star Trek movies are equally good. Ha! On the contrary, most aren’t very good at all. (The Wrath of Khan is the best. Duh. But The Voyage Home and the first two new ones are pretty good too. Let us simply not speak of Insurrection.)
Star Trek is, of course, famous for Captain Kirk’s opening words:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!
Like all science fiction, Star Trek isn’t really about science or the future. It’s about now. It isn’t about aliens out in the galaxy; it’s about the human beings on planet Earth who are “alien” to each other.
And Star Trek encourages us to boldly seek out those who are are alien to us, because if we do, we’ll discover how much we have in common — how, in so many important ways, we’re all the same.
These are my favorite travel movies? What do you think of my choices? And what are yours?
Oh, and don’t forget Brent’s Five Favorite Travel Movies! Brent’s a screenwriter and a huge movie buff, so he’s got some pretty interesting picks — and some very thoughtful explanations why he picked them.
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i though i was the only one who watched the Octopus movie hahaha
First of all, you had to make me cry before 7am… I LOVED My Octopus Teacher so much just thinking about it makes me teary. Love your other choices too. Your description of T & L was brilliant, I had not thought of it in those terms! 👏