Introduction by Anarchy Jones
Fantasy in literature has always been a rich genre. As early as the Epic of Gilgamesh and including most of mankind’s earliest written documentation, this is a genre that has been used to not only entertain, but also to educate and explain things that man could not yet understand. The stories are ripe with magic and, whether they are dark or lighter in tone, always full of wonder. From the myths of the Olympians to the mines of Moria, these epic tales stand the test of time. Yet the elements that make fantasy stories so enjoyable are the same elements that make them difficult to transfer to the big screen. Such rare success coupled with a deep-rooted attraction for wondrous worlds and mythical adventures means that a great fantasy film can truly be a masterpiece.
It’s understandable why gems of this genre can be few and far between. When you have a story with sorcery and witchcraft, magical creatures, and fantastical realms, a huge chunk of the budget needs to be spent on sets and effects. And fantasy is such a hit-or-miss genre that studios tend to shy away from shelling out the dough. Thankfully there are some auteurs with a hint of a wizard’s touch themselves who are able to convince executives that The Lord of the Rings would be great as three separate movies, for example (thank you Peter Jackson!). Money isn’t always needed though, as guys like Ray Harryhausen and Jim Henson take on seemingly insurmountable tasks with only talent and innovation in their back pockets.
Harryhausen has a host of incredible fantasy titles on his resume, such as Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and other Sinbad films, and of course Clash of the Titans. Do yourself a favor and only ever watch Harryhausen’s version. Even if the new one wasn’t just a downright horrible film, it would still have not been able to capture the charm of the original. I’ll put Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects over CG any day. And really, one of the hardest parts of putting fantasy on screen and getting people to connect with it is to make everything seem real. A giant cyclops built by man’s hand beats a fancy vector graph hands down.
New technology doesn’t always hurt fantasy films though, especially when it’s used to enhance an older practice, like puppeteering. Bobby discusses Labyrinth below, which is definitely a great piece. Yet what Henson did with The Dark Crystal was simply perfection. He not only created a world that never existed, but he was able to give life to the characters and creatures that lived in it. What better form of magic is there than to transport audiences to a make-believe world and be so engrossed in an epic story where humans don’t even exist?
Speaking of epic stories, who can deny the wonder of The NeverEnding Story? Don’t tell me you’ve lived every day of your life never wanting a luck dragon. The great thing about this movie, aside from how awesome it is, is how it pays homage to books and stories and written word. Plus, have I mentioned Falkor the luck dragon? He’s one of the most awesome dragons in a genre full of mean man-eating monsters. Dragons aren’t the only creatures who generally have a bad rap, though. Midgets or dwarves tend to be either evil or bumbling jesters. Except for Willow Ufgood of course, from the Ron Howard-directed George Lucas story Willow.
Don’t laugh. Willow has everything a great fantasy film should have: a heartless villain, a charismatic hero (two in fact: Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer, and Willow, played by Warwick Davis), a dragon, trolls, fairies, sorcery, a princess, sword battles, romance, and sacrificial babies. This movie has heart, humor, great characters and memorable lines; it gets better and better with each viewing and transports you repeatedly to another place and time. And really that’s what fantasy is all about. While in the past fantasy was used as more of a way to explain real things and real life, today it is more of an escape, a way to cleanse yourself of reality.
Hopefully with all the excitement and anticipation surrounding The Hobbit and the success of fantasy on the TV with Game of Thrones (if you’re not watching, start), studios will learn that fantasy can be a safe gamble as long as you bet on the right people with the right passion. So while we’re waiting for new realms to enchant us, let’s visit some old ones.
Fantasy movies will never be considered hard to come by, but not too many can be considered classic. One that might hold one of the biggest followings is Labyrinth starring the eccentric David Bowie as the King Of Goblins, Jareth. This movie has some of the most engrossing scenes of fantasy that I have ever seen. We get a combination of ingenious puppetry and original-style costume acting to make a movie that was destined to be a fan favorite. From the mind of Jim Henson, this is definitely one of my best-loved movies from childhood, along with such films as The Goonies and The NeverEnding Story.
The story is about a teenager named Sarah who hates babysitting her little brother, Toby. She wishes that goblins would take him away so the Goblin King, Jareth, obliges. In order to get her baby brother back before he turns into a goblin forever, she must reach the Goblin King’s castle at the center of an enormous labyrinth. Along the way, she comes across puzzles of knowledge, entertaining monsters and challenges only Henson could imagine. If this sounds anything along the lines of Alice in Wonderland on some kind of even more hallucinogenic drug, that’s because it is.
If you didn’t know, Henson is well-known for his interesting techniques in puppeteering. In order for the artists to convey precise emotions and move fluently, he installed cameras in most puppets so that the puppeteer could get the most effective point-of-view. This is a technique he used heavily on the set of Labyrinth. The loveable monster known as Ludo had a camera installed in his right horn and a screen sitting nicely within the head for best viewing. Alternatively, David Bowie juggling the crystal balls was an illusion. A famed juggler and choreographer, Michael Moschen, crouched behind Bowie and used his own arms to pull off the trick – without cameras to guide him, I might add. Jim Henson’s own son even played the voice of the famed Hoggle. It is worth mentioning that George Lucas produced the film but you don’t see any impressions of Lucas in my opinion. If all the amazing behind-the-scenes works doesn’t get you, the treasure hunt of clues throughout the movie will. In the beginning scene showing Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) in her room, you can see hints as to what you will see in the forms of stuffed animals, statues and paintings.
The whole movie is just non-stop fun but what it really teaches you is not to conjure up Goblin Kings that steal babies. Since seeing this movie when I was a wee lad, I have made it a point to stay away from incantations involving goblins at all. But more importantly, I learned the power of hair spray on the flowing mane that is David Bowie’s hair. I think Henson may have invented a whole new type of puppeteering just to give Bowie’s hair such volume. How else would he keep it so cool and collected through hypnotizing juggling and enticing dance numbers? For being my go-to cult fantasy film on my movie shelf, I give Labyrinth 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Have fun watching the trailer:
Dragonslayer came out when Disney Studios was exploring new avenues in the early ’80s, looking into films that were more adult oriented. Included in the mix were Tron, The Devil and Max Devlin, Amy, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods. These films often times explored subjects not meant for children. The most risqué of the films would have to be Dragonslayer. This film includes images of people getting eaten by dragon young, people engulfed in flames and brief nudity. Yes, there is nudity in a Disney film.
The hero Galen (Peter MacNicol in his first roll) is a sorcerer’s apprentice, who is thrust into the role of saving a kingdom from a dragon that is only appeased by sacrificing virgin girls to it. His master Ulrich (no relation to the Metallica drummer and played by the legendary Ralph Richardson) is killed in a failed attempt to prove his powers to the villain Tyrian (John Hallam).
Galen teams up with the boy Valerian who, eventually in a skinny dipping scene, turns out to have boobs and plumbing that differs from most men. She was raised as a boy by her father in order for her to be exempt from the lottery process involved in choosing the virgin girl for sacrifice. Together, the two stand up against the horribly superimposed dragon and special effects that seem, at times, to come from a ’50s drive-in film rather than ILM. The dialogue, especially that of MacNicol, was re-recorded in post-production and often times doesn’t line up with the visuals.
Recent fantasy films are more often than not considered the best of their genre, but it isn’t really fair when you consider the advancement in technology between say Dragonslayer and Peter Jackson’s King Kong or The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson has made great strides in bringing the stories or yore to the big screen in digital format. But you have to give Dragonslayer some credit for being the first “real” attempt in making a fantasy film that exceeded minimalistic budgets and was released by a large studio. Prior attempts had only really been done in cartoon format.
Though dated, and often times over acted by MacNicol (who to this day does not list the film on his resume), it is a classic film that must be watched by fans of the fantasy genre. Dragonslayer gets 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls from me. Check out the trailer:
The Tempest (2010)
Recommended by: Jason
Remember studying Romeo and Juliet during your freshman year in high school? It was abysmal. You likely had to endure monotone readings by your classmates that had about as much depth and excitement as unleavened bread. It’s no wonder when you hear the name “Shakespeare” you cringe and imagine a crooked-toothed, pantaloon-wearing fop with a snooty British accent pontificating gibberish while holding a skull or dagger or poison.
So how can I convince you to watch Shakespeare? By telling you to watch Shakespeare that kicks your teeth in. And Julie Taymor wears steel-toed boots.
Taymor is the director of Across the Universe and Titus and her production of The Tempest is an equally stunning marriage of mesmerizing music and compelling (and sometimes disturbing) visual imagery. Add Shakespeare’s mastery of language and an all star cast and you have a visionary film, a vibrant work of art.
“What is Shakespeare doing in an article about fantasy films?” you ask. Well, stop interrupting me. It’s rude.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of the original fantasy narratives. It tells the tale of a mage, Prospero (played as Prospera by the remarkable Helen Mirren) who is exiled when he is accused of having practiced the dark arts. Prospero and his daughter land on a magical island where he uses his power to enslave two spirits – the base Caliban and the ethereal Ariel. Twelve years later, fortune brings a ship carrying those who betrayed Prospero near to this island. Prospero creates a tempest to wreck that ship so that he might seek revenge against those who betrayed him and find a worthy man for his daughter.
Most modern fantasy narratives are derivative of The Tempest. Gandalf is as much Prospero as Prospero is Merlin. If Gollum is not derived from Caliban, then call me an elf-skinned, clapper-clawed, flap-dragon.
This film is riveting from beginning to end. Mirren delivers yet another bold performance. You will also be pleased to see Felicity Jones, Djimon Hounsou, Alan Cumming, Chris Cooper, and Alfred Molina deliver brilliant performances. Russell Brand fans will be overjoyed to see him frolic about the island as the fool Trinculo – a role that Shakespeare seemed to have written for him hundreds of years ago.
So give Shakespeare another chance. I assure you that Taymor’s The Tempest will entertain you more than the monotone droning of Mrs. Havisham’s Freshman English class. You’ll understand it better too.
The Tempest is ”such stuff as dreams are made on.” It earns an easy 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Here’s the trailer:
Highlander Director’s cut (1986)
The plot of Highlander is ridiculously awesome. Connor MacLeod is a warrior in the Scottish Highlands in the 1500s. During his first clan battle he is mortally wounded but he miraculously survives. He learns that not only is he immortal, but he is destined to compete against other immortals that are spread across the world for what is known as “The Prize.” The only way an immortal can be beaten is by chopping off his head, which is followed by a lightning spectacle during which the beaten immortal’s knowledge and strength are transferred to the victor. Immortals are to seek each other out and fight until a single victor remains, because in the end, there can be only one. The story alternates between Connor’s early life in 16th century Scotland and present day (1985) New York City, when only a few immortals remain.
What’s even weirder than the plot is the casting. Our immortal Scottish highlander is played by French actor Christopher Lambert. This film was his first major English speaking role, and he had only learned to speak English right before he was picked up. Sean Connery also has a major role, which would make sense in a movie named Highlander, except that he actually plays Connor’s Egyptian-Spanish mentor Ramirez. How they managed to snag the most Scottish person on earth for this movie, only to let him play a Spaniard is beyond me. It cracks me up every time I watch the film, when Connery makes his entrance on his horse, wearing a colorful outfit and a hat draped with peacock feathers, introducing himself as “Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, Chief metallurgist to King Charles V of Spain.”
It gets even weirder when a few scenes later Lambert is explaining to a flabbergasted Connery, with his French accent of course, what exactly Haggis is. It’s as if they purposely cast and wrote this movie to be very weird, and I love it. Despite the seemingly odd casting choices, the characters turned out great, and Lambert and Connery have great chemistry. The role launched Lambert to cult-movie fame and he would go on to star in such gems as Fortress and Mortal Kombat. Clancy Brown brilliantly plays MacLeod’s nemesis, the savage and disgusting Kurgan.
Perhaps the best element of Highlander is the music. The entire soundtrack was done by Queen, with the orchestral score composed by Michael Kamen. Several very recognizable Queen classics were actually written specifically for this movie, and a lot of the lyrics suddenly make sense when you hear the songs throughout the film. A great example of this is a scene illustrating Connor’s burden of always outliving his loved ones. While we see Connor’s wife aging and eventually dying, leaving Connor behind alone, “Who Wants to Live Forever” plays in the background. The movie is worth a viewing for the music alone.
For me, Highlander is the ultimate cult-movie, and I easily give it 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Have fun watching the trailer:
Legend Director’s cut (1985)
The film I chose this month had a very meager warm reception when it came out. Critics felt that the film was simply a rehashing of several other fantasy, science fiction, and sword and sorcery films. It is a much darker fairy tale.
This has got to be one of the most seriously underrated fantasy masterpieces out there. Legend is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Mia Sara and a young Tom Cruise. It also offers one of the best performances on screen by the great Tim Curry (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Darkness. A slew of other characters abound in this film but focusing on the three main characters, the fantastic cinematography, the true director’s score and incredible makeup effects is all this film needs to make it one of my favorite films in history. This isn’t by any means Scott’s most successful film but it was full of imagination and deeply-rooted fantastic evil creatures and extravagantly created sets; it still holds its charm and grotesque beauty even today. Scott’s direction is poetry.
I have two versions of this film on DVD, the original theatrical version and the director’s cut. One a Jerry Goldsmith-scored “Director’s Cut” and the other a Tangerine Dream-scored “Theatrical Cut.” It a simple matter of musical choice; they are both well done. But for me, it’s a fairy tale filled with beautiful and horrible images and can only be followed by a fantasy like no other. I choose the Director’s Cut and will any day of the week.
The makeup and costumes in Legend are flawless thanks to the likes of Rob Bottin who was on set after fulfilling his commitment to John Carpenter while filming The Thing. His presence of incredible make-up is why CGI sucks so bad today compared to actual old school hours of body casts and prosthetics. The costume design by Charles Knode was also so perfect for this movie; not too over the top but just right and believable.
But I digress, and while I could talk about the likes of a young Tom Cruise or Mia Sara, I instead choose to focus on Tim Curry. This, in my eyes, was what Darkness would look like if I met him: hoofed, clawed, giant-horned and red. Combine those with Tim Curry’s film and stage presence and you have the ultimate character that scared me more then so many countless others growing up. I actually was afraid of this character.
Legend may have become fodder for American reviewers while released due to the executive decision to add the Tangerine Dream techno-pop musical background and it fell into disastrous box office oblivion. But in my eyes I only wanted the Director’s Cut to be shown across America so they could hear the splendor of the Jerry Goldsmith-scored version to truly understand the power of this film.
Legend may seem like a simple plot of greed, lust, lost innocence and fear against a backdrop of the fight between good and evil. But it’s more than that. It is an incredible masterpiece of breathtaking visual poetry that goes under the radar, but not mine because Scott joins all things I need in a film: cinematography, score, fine acting (Tim Curry), amazing makeup and a great screenplay. It is cinematic art. It’s too bad almost 36 minutes of the film was left on the editor’s cutting room floor for the US release in 1986 after the music was changed out to a techno-pop group. Good thing we have the Director’s Cut.
I give it 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Now enjoy the trailer:
There are very few elements missing from Stardust. It has action, adventure, intrigue, comedy, sword fights, magic, love, betrayal, pirates, flying ships, malicious princes and kings, evil witches, unicorns (okay, just one unicorn), and Robert DeNiro in a corset. If you love, or even just like, any combination of these things then you have got to see Stardust. And if you have seen it, you should see it again, because it improves on further viewings.
And did I mention it is based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, my most favorite author of all time? Stardust was third in his series of novels, preceded only by Good Omens and Neverwhere (someday I’ll have to revisit the BBC mini series of that one…it has its own special charm). It’s been a long time since I read Stardust, and I do recall there are significant differences in the film adaptation, but writer/director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men:First Class) had Gaiman’s full blessing on the changes they made and that’s good enough for me.
There are so many great things about this movie so let’s start with the technical stuff. For me there is almost no wasted screen time in this movie. Every word of dialogue serves a greater purpose, every scene moves the story in the right direction. My only complaint is some lack of depth in a few of the effects scenes, which on a $70 million budget are more than forgivable. And since the movie is so much fun, and the performances so intense, you probably won’t even notice. Speaking of performances, lets take a look at this cast, shall we? Clare Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ian McKellen, Peter O’Toole, Sienna Miller, Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Mark Heap (Brian from Spaced!), Rupert Everett, and a ton of other British actors you’ve all seen in Guy Ritchie films and character actors you’ve seen in almost everything that has come out of Britain.
That’s great, you say, but what the hell is this movie about anyway? Well, in late 19th-century England there is a small town called Wall, so called for the wall that separates it from the magical realm of Stormhold. No one is allowed to cross the wall but one day a young man from the town of Wall, Dunstan Thorn, does. He wanders through a magical market town and meets a beautiful woman. They make a baby, but she is a slave girl and can’t keep it so she drops it by the wall and the baby is raised by Dunstan’s father who does not reveal anything about his son’s “unusual” heritage. Fast forward eighteen years later and this child, Tristan Thorn, falls in love with a village girl, Victoria.
On a late night picnic they see a star fall and to prove his love to her he vows to retrieve it for her. Now, that was no ordinary star. It just so happens the star was knocked out of the sky by the King of Stormhold. You see the King of Stormhold was on his deathbed and in order to determine which of his four living sons was to succeed him he took a giant ruby necklace, drained it of its color and told his sons that whoever restored the ruby would be king. Then he died and the necklace shot off into the heavens, hit a star and fell back to earth with her. Her? Yes, in Stormhold stars are living beings (in this case, Clare Danes).
It also happens that an ugly old witch (Pfeiffer) and her ugly old sisters also see the star fall. And the thing about stars is that if you eat their heart you will regain your youth (in the case of the witches) or live forever (in the case of regular humans apparently). So at the end of the first act we have Tristan and the witches seeking the star and the princes seeking the stone, which is with the star. Then we have the subplot of the princes also killing each other, which it turns out is a family tradition. In fact three of their brothers were dead before the film starts, and their ghosts are constantly hanging about to see how things go down.
Tristan, fortunately, does get to the star first through a method I will not disclose and they set off toward the wall together, fall into a trap set by Pfeiffer’s evil witch, get involved with sky pirates led by a man called Captain Shakespeare (De Niro), and of course, fall in love as they grow as people. And indeed the character arcs of Tristan and Yvaine (that’s the star’s name, btw) is expertly handled. It’s all about the little things in this film to show you how the characters have grown through their experiences. And it’s so bloody charming! The only thing that could make this story better is the fatherly voice of Sir Ian McKellen as he narrates bits of it to you. Which, thankfully, he does!
“No man can live forever, except he who possess the heart of a star…” says Sir Ian McKellen in his best storybook voice. Every time I come to the end of Stardust, and le’ts say I’m somewhere in the vicinity of 30+ views on this movie, McKellen’s voice transports me to a land where I am 10 years old forever and the only thing I have to worry about is my hot chocolate getting cold. Now that I think about it, I do believe I tend to watch this movie more in wintertime. It’s perfect for snuggling under a soft blanket with a cup of tea and some biscuits. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s beautifully shot, the performances are spot on, and it touches on all the best themes a fantasy film should touch on: love, friendship, loyalty, and bravery.
Sigh. I love this movie.
On a side note, in my research on this film I have seen it often compared to The Princess Bride, but I don’t really think that’s apt, or fair. It’s a completely different type of movie, though I admit I do get some of the same warm fuzzies inside that I get when I watch TPB. So if you like TPB (and if you don’t that means you don’t have a soul, btw), then Stardust is probably for you too. It gets 5 out of 5 Nerdskulls from me, and that’s not something I do lightly. Check out the trailer:
For the life of me, I cannot remember seeing Willow for the first time. I can remember, though, that I absolutely loved it. I grew up with crazy fantasy films like Dragonslayer, Krull, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story and many more. Some were great, most sucked, but all of them had something that amazed me. In Willow, it was Madmartigan. I’d seen Val Kilmer in other roles, Real Genius and Top Gun come to mind, but was amazed by this sword-wielding smart-mouth mercenary with a heart of gold. He was like Han Solo, but with medieval weapons.
And why would I compare this hero-for-hire to a classic sci-fi film? Here it comes…Willow was produced and co-written by the man, the myth, the legend himself, Mr. George Lucas! In an incredibly undervalued relationship, Lucas enlisted his one-time leading man Ron Howard (American Graffiti) to direct his fantasy tale. Lucky for us, Howard wanted to shift gears after geriatric storytelling (Cocoon). And as Lucas does, he brought his other friends along to make his dream come true, namely Return of the Jedi’s Wicket, Warwick Davis. As for the film, Lucas himself describes it best: “A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea.”
Willow, as are most of Lucas’s fantastical stories, is a hodge podge of classic mythology and a heavy dose of Joesph Campbell’s hero journey. An evil queen, Bavmorda, seeks to kill all female babies in the hopes of avoiding an ancient prophecy. Her plans are derailed as one of the babies, the one that just so happens to have the prophetic birthmark, is smuggled out of the kingdom and sent floating towards fate on a river where she is discovered by the Ufgood children of a dwarf-like race known as Nelwyns. The patriarch, Willow (Warwick Davis), farmer and wannabe magician, reluctantly takes the Daikini (term used to refer to the humans) into his home. The story is classic fantasy; the journey is set, one man seeks a goal and gathers a band of misfits along the way to assist. And the main misfit to guide this group, my man Madmartigan!
As with any Lucas property I could talk about it all day, so I shall simply say, watch it for yourself. It truly is a classic tale of sorcery, mystical lands, witches, queens, battles, dragons and anything else you can think of! Willow has somewhat been lost amongst the more recent stories of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but you can bet one thing, those movies wouldn’t exist as they do without the technical CGI advancements Industrial Light & Magic made during post production. You can really see the technology put to the test with the morphing scenes as Willow continually fails to return Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) into her human form. We see her go from a possum to a goat through a slew of other animals, like an ostrich, tiger, peacock and a tortoise. This advancement led us to believe in dinosaurs and terminators. Ironically, I’m a huge fan of limited CGI in film, but am a huge advocate of movie advancements, specifically ones that allow our imaginations to soar even more. To all those haters, I say, “Outta’ the way, peck!” I give Willow 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Try to not enjoy the trailer: