Strangers with Portals: A Fish Out of Water Subgenre

The road to success for ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ includes a lot of misfires and flops involving familiar fish out of water stories.
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on February 17th, 2020

Fish out of water stories are a cornerstone of fiction, applicable to all kinds of genres including romantic comedies and superhero blockbusters. They’re especially a staple of science fiction and fantasy, with depictions of aliens among us, human explorations of other worlds, and more scenarios involving strangers in a strange land. On occasion, there are visitors to Earth from not just another planet but a different universe entirely, perhaps an alternate dimension. Many of those movies involve familiar characters who leave their familiar fictional worlds for ours by way of a portal. Here’s a listicle as history lesson explaining why.

Hercules in New York (1970)


Stories of mythological heroes visiting the mortal world are as old as stories themselves, so it only made sense for someone to make a movie about a god or demigod arriving on Earth in the present day. But it wasn’t one of the major studios that had the idea, so Hercules in New York wasn’t a big hit. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the titular character — credited as Arnold Strong “Mr. Universe” and his dialogue dubbed by someone without his now-iconic accent — as the ancient hero visits the Big Apple and gets mixed up with gangsters. Hilarity ensues. Or is supposed to.

Howard the Duck (1986)

Howard The Duck And Beverly

Not quite an example of a fish out of his universe movie so much as something that may have inspired the specific trope, Howard the Duck is based on a Marvel Comics character who is already a displaced creature residing on Earth. So the feature film adaptation is faithful to its origins. However, that comic book basically does, on the page, what these other movies will do because its premise imagines an anthropomorphic cartoon duck, a la Disney’s Donald but with a hard-boiled attitude, transplanted from his all-duck alternate-universe type planet to the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Masters of the Universe (1987)

He Man And Courtney Cox

In 1982, MGM/UA coincidentally, unintentionally made the best He-Man movie possible even before He-Man toys and cartoons existed. It was called The Beastmaster. Five years later, Cannon made an official He-Man movie with Masters of the Universe, and it turned out less faithful. To cut costs (and probably to make it more appealing to teens), the studio set most of the movie on Earth rather than Castle Greyskull and the realm of Eternia. He-Man, his nemesis Skeletor, and other characters from the action figure line (plus new additions) traveled through a portal to New Jersey to interact with a young Courtney Cox.

Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (1991)


Oddly enough, when Republic Pictures produced a sequel to The Beastmaster, the plot was basically lifted from the failed Masters of the Universe movie. But instead of there being an evil sorceress following the hero through a portal to modern-day America, here Dar, the titular warrior, follows an evil sorceress through a portal to modern-day America. And instead of the hero meeting MTV music video star Courtney Cox, he encounters MTV game show star Kari Wuhrer. Leaving behind most of what fans loved in the original Beastmaster movie, Beastmaster 2 made even less money than the He-Man flop.

Fat Albert (2004)

Fat Albert Movie

There’s another trope that focuses on characters literally from television and movies entering our world through the screen. Called Refugee from TV Land at TV Tropes, it includes The Purple Rose of Cairo, Last Action Hero, The Icicle Thief, and the last act of Blazing Saddles (but not Sherlock Jr., which is a reversal of the idea) with characters stepping out of their screens. None of them were famous characters prior to their movies, though. Fat Albert is part of that trope but in adapting the old cartoon as a movie, it forces the fish out of universe premise in order to make it a cultural clash comedy set in our world.

Enchanted (2007)


Disney’s Enchanted does not focus on a pre-existing character, but its heroine, Giselle, is at least an amalgamation inspired by various iconic Disney Princesses from the studio’s animated features. She starts out as animated here and then travels through a portal to present-day real-world New York City. Similar to general fish out of water stories, it’s not uncommon for the transplanted characters in these to wind up staying in our world. At the end of Enchanted, we also see a real-world human choose to enter the cartoon fantasy realm, giving Idina Menzel her first Disney Princess role years before voicing Frozen‘s Elsa. Enchanted is the first successful example in terms of reviews and box office. It’s also the first of these to star James Marsden.

Thor (2011)

Thor Coffee

Marvel Studios finally made a hit out of the premise behind Hercules in New York, Masters of the Universe, and Beastmaster 2 as well as the Marvel-based Howard the Duck with the fourth entry in their cinematic universe. Thor was also the movie that made me realize superhero movies are now the go-to genre for fish out of water stories in general. Sure, the Asgardian Avenger is known to visit Earth on the regular in the comics, but having him banished to our world in his first big movie was due to the franchise’s big plans plus the fact that the MCU hadn’t yet risked venturing into the cosmic too much at this point.

The Smurfs (2011) and The Smurfs 2 (2013)

Smurfs Taxi

Hollywood has long loved pairing cartoon characters with humans, and now with CG effects what they are, there’s a desire to make those cartoon characters more three-dimensional and as realistically rendered as they can. That would have been enough to pit the Smurfs against Gargamel in a live-action movie, but like the problem of Eternia 33 years ago, the characters’ homeworld would be very expensive to create in full for the length of a feature, so that’s a reason to have the Smurfs transplanted via portal to modern-day New York City (making it feel like an Enchanted remake) and interact with more regular human folk and situations. It’s also, clearly, a good way for something like The Smurfs to add in a ton of product placement.

Christopher Robin (2018)

Christopher Robin

This example from Disney, which also falls under their live-action reimagining trend, is special for having a main human character who is already familiar with the other-world creatures. The titular Christopher Robin had interacted with Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and the rest by visiting their realm as a child. Now he’s grown up and they miss him, so they find their way through the portal from the Hundred Acre Wood and eventually wind up in 20th century London. To the rest of the real world, they don’t seem like alien visitors so much as sentient plush animals that can talk.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Paramount Pictures

When you look back at the history of movies in which familiar characters are transplanted to Earth, it’s a wonder Hollywood keeps doing them. Few of them are successful, but it’s also less of a risk to produce video game adaptations, which tend to perform poorly themselves, that are set in the real world rather than a wholly CG-created fantasy universe. Paramount could, a la Masters of the Universe, show those other worlds as bookends and then bring the popular Sega character to modern-day America. Ironically, the studio wound up having to spend a lot more money than they’d intended because of the backlash against their attempt at a “more realistic” main character. They delayed the release and changed Sonic to a more faithful cartoon look for what would otherwise have been a rather inexpensive road trip buddy comedy pairing the character with James Marsden.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.