Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Wasteland: Post-Lord of the Rings fantasy film landscape is looking pretty bleak

From the time The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring hit the theatres in 2001, until The Return of the King finally exited the big screen and made its way to home video in 2004, I was in fantasy film heaven. Long the subject of scorn and derision--and with duds like The Beastmaster and Conan the Destroyer, deservedly so--the fantasy film genre had finally broken through to respectability. From its box office mastery (grossing over a billion dollars, all three films combined) to its crowning achievement, an Academy award for best picture, The Lord of the Rings was overwhelming proof that fantasy can be a critical and commercial success on the silver screen when done right.

When the curtain went down on Return of the King, I was saddened at the thought of a holiday season without a Rings installment to look forward to, but my spirits were lightened considerably at the thought of what was to come. I and many other more savvy film enthusiasts predicted that LOTR's mightly splash would start a tidal wave of fantasy films that would capture the public's imagination. Inspired by Peter Jackson's example, I thought that a new group of directors would pick up the torch and produce similiarly awesome adaptions of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy, and other fantasy classics.

Well, four years on the wave has certainly struck, but--and forgive the hyperbole--its delivered mostly raw sewage on our shores.

How bad is the post-LOTR fantasy film landscape? Here's a few examples:

I wanted a big budget, live-action Dragonlance, and instead we got this "adaptation", whose dusted-off 1980's-style animation looks not unlike a failed Saturday morning cartoon pilot that got beaten out by the likes of Thundercats and GI-Joe.

I hoped and prayed for the heir apparent to Excalibur, still the best Arthurian film against which all others, past and present, will be judged, but instead I got King Arthur, an awful, arrogant ("The Untold True Story That Inspired the Legend"), Guinevere-as-Xena, faux-Arthurian mess. After watching it, I wanted those two hours of my life back.

I ached for a big and bold swords-and-sandals film, but instead I got Troy , which featured flat, emotionless acting, an unengaging storyline, and battles with the same spectacle but none of the heart of the LOTR films.

While I haven't seen The Dark is Rising, Eragon, The Golden Compass, or the newest fantasy film, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, all the reviews I've read about these pictures range from medicore (Compass), to poor (Eragon), to outright atrocities on celluloid (Dark and In the Name of the King).

The biggest mistake that I've seen from this recent spate of sub-par fantasy films is exemplified by 300. This film features battles, battles, and more battles, broken up by angry, yelling men and/or flat, emotionless acting. It's as though Zack Snyder and other recent fantasy directors watched LOTR and got such hard-ons from Minas Tirith and Helm's Deep that they forgot all of the quiet moments that made LOTR so great. I love hacking, bloodletting, and bombastic, troop-rousing battle speeches too, folks, but there's more to good fantasy than CGI combat and pretentious dialogue.

So is the all the news grim? No, fortunately. I'm glad to say that there have been some rays of light in the darkness: I was quite pleased with the first installment of the Chronciles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, which I thought was very well-done, enjoyable by both adults and children. The early glimpses I've seen of Prince Caspian leave me with high hopes for that film as well. I've also heard some good things about the recent 3-D Beowulf. And while I'm not a fan of Harry Potter, I've heard that the films are reasonably faithful and quite watchable adaptations.

But overall, I'm frankly quite bitter at the current state of fantasy celluloid. I'm angrier still that the great opportunity afforded by The Lord of the Rings--a window in which the big studios loosened their purse strings and financed the big budgets necessary to do justice to high fantasy--has been llargely squandered. Earning back that respect and erasing the damage may take years, I fear.


Falze said...

The Harry Potter movies capture the wonder of fantasy novels - at least the first 4 do. The 5th turns dark and is more 'action' oriented. The 6th will likely follow that path, but a great director could work pure magic with the 7th (and, in truth, it could be a 2 parter - they'll NEVER do it, but I firmly believe that they should make 2 movies from 6 and 7, but include a chunk of 7 in 6, 6 is quite short and frankly bereft of action, that way you could cover a lot of ground. Instead they will make 6 too long and it will drag and be boring and then they will cut too much from 7 and everyone will be ticked about that). I recommend reading the books first, but if you don't care about the story that much, then the movies are still full of whimsy and plucky youngsters. People that have not read the books still enjoy the movies (enough that we went to see #5 in the theater) and someone I work with decided they had to read the last 2 books after seeing the first 5 movies. They're about as close-to-the-story as you could expect, actually. My biggest gripe is that the 'kids' are too old to keep playing the roles. They should've changed the cast after every movie - at least the kids - because now they're stuck with it and they're going to look ridiculous filming 6 and 7 with these same 5 o'clock shadowed 'kids'.

Prince Caspian looks like a legitimate sequel to the spirit displayed in lion/witch/wardrobe.

The Dark Is Rising is pure gold for a talented director and a good studio. Too bad Walden or someone in that vein didn't get hold of it. The books are short, an easy adaptation to a 100 minute film, the characters are lively, featuring a modern day Merlin and cute, precocious kids, magic, just enough danger and suspense to give the little ones a thrill without making them wet themselves...5 ready-made FAMILY blockbusters. Instead we get maladapted crudola.

But if you keep disparaging The Beastmaster, we're going to have words! Heh. Go! Go my little ferrets!

Brian Murphy said...

I have heard lots of good things about Harry Potter (the films and the novels, of course). I did read the first one--The Sorcerer's Stone, I believe--and wasn't wowed enough to rush out and get the second. But maybe one day I'll give it another go.

I agree about The Dark is Rising series--I think they'd make fantastic films. I haven't read them in a while but I certainly have fond memories of them. Likewise, I'd love to see a film or films made about the Chronicles of Prydain.

Unfortunately, apparently the film (The Seeker) based on the first Dark is Rising book is apparently an absolutely awful film.

Sorry about my constant slagging of The Beastmaster. I actually think that there's a kernel of a good movie in there, and there's parts I like, but I hate movies that have cute animals saving the day.

Falze said...

The Beastmaster was pretty much the abyss of the Conan ripoffs. It makes Red Sonja look like high art. It makes Conan The Destroyer look like Gone With The Wind.

trollsmyth said...

Gotta come to the defense of "Beastmaster" here. Yeah, it had the budget and sensibility of a TV miniseries, as well as the cast. But it had a solid story. It was no Ladyhawke, but even that movie suffered a painful score.

Hollywood will never give us a slew of great fantasy flicks because they're just too hard. With a romantic comedy or action flick, there's a lot of paint-by-the-numbers you can do, and then rely on talented actors to pick up the slack. Comedy is difficult as well, but Hollywood has long had good rapport with comedians.

Fantasy is another beast all together. Even if you try to use the classic quest format, you run into problems. It requires unusual settings and amazing creatures that look both realistic but otherworldly, and not silly. You have to avoid letting the journey of the quest turn into a drudgery to watch. And spectacle is always a double-edged sword in the hands of most directors.

- Brian