I think I've talked about this before, but it's been some time, and with the current feast of speculative television and movies, I thought it would be fitting to look back at the movies that started it all ... specifically, my favorite three.
Obviously, the Lord of the Rings movies set the bar and opened the gates for fantasy film. There is a direct line from the success of that trilogy to Game of Thrones, which made secondary world fantasy not just viable on the small screen, but a smashing success. Suddenly, it's mainstream. I was seriously tempted to buy a "A Girl has No Name" t-shirt, and cheerfully confident that people would get the reference.
But Lord of the Rings is a step in the middle of the road - a big step, but not the first. And for me, I was an adult when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out: other films had already been inscribed on my heart.
Specifically, these three.
The Princess Bride: let me start with the most famous of these, the cult classic of swashbuckling, romance, faux-left-handed swordfighting, and rodents of unusual size. It has all the elements you think of when you think of traditional fantasy, witty, eminently quotable dialogue, and an enormous heart. The Princess Bride is an adaptation of the novel by the same name, the script written by the author. It is (unsurprisingly) remarkably faithful to the book, though it removes one level of humor that only works in the printed form and transitions the internal monologues and flashbacks to external monologues ... which works remarkably well and makes the characters feel more connected to each other.
That level of humor, by the way, is embedded in the conceit that Goldman "translated" The Princess Bride, which is not actually an adventure story at all, but an intricate political satire based on fashion, manners, and even packing for a trip. This also more firmly plants the tale on "our" earth, but either way, it's a version that never existed and never will. (For my money, I actually like the film better: that the backstories such as Inigo's are internalized makes the story feel more isolated. It's more intellectual, but not as warm.)
Willow: an evil sorceress hunts the child of prophecy destined to destroy her ... and the babe ends up in the care of an unassuming farmer, who must take her to safety. It really is an iconic tale, an archetypal example of fantasy, though the "chosen one" is an infant - really a McGuffin more than a character, though the little girl is absolutely charming - and the farmer has a loving wife and children.
I've never confirmed whether this is true or urban legend, but my favorite story about this movie is that George Lucas wanted to make Willow instead of Star Wars, but the technology required for the morphing effect was not yet available. It's why there are so many similarities in the storyline and character roles. But the morphing is in full flower here, and it still holds up remarkably well. (Not so much with some of the other special effects, like the multi-headed monster, sadly.)
It's an exciting, rollicking movie, with generously applied humor and highly quotable lines ("Went away? 'I dwell in darkness without you' and it went away?") ... and Val Kilmer in a skirt. No, not a kilt, a skirt. And, of course, I should point out that the wizard staff battle in Lord of the Rings is completely, totally shamelessly ripped off from the showdown between Bavmorda and Fin Raziel.
Ladyhawke: a tale of cursed lovers, a powerful bishop, and the thief who tumbles into their path, this movie is an absolutely perfect example of a Welsh myth, down to small details ... so perfect, in fact, that early promotional materials touted it as an authentic legend, and the actual author had to sue to get the packaging altered. (I wrote an essay in one of my courses about this movie, breaking down all the elements.) It's a gorgeous, atmospheric tale, unfolded with a slowness that sometimes approaches the ponderous, but the pay-off is the sense of wonder. This is really a "low magic" story, but it is infused with mythical imagery. A lot of people complain about the rock music soundtrack, but for me, I find it strangely fitting.
Ladyhawke got around the potential need for morphing technology with a really great effect: instead of trying to show the transformation, the shot focuses in close-up on the eyes of the person transforming, that moment of shock, realization and then the flash from human to animal.
Ladyhawke has Matthew Broderick at his very best. Most people think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off when they think of Broderick, but I think of this movie. He and the inimitable Leo McKern provide the movie with a much-needed counterbalance of levity. (Oh, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer. Impressive cast much?)
So those are my three favorite fantasy movies: they all share archetypal elements, character-based humor, and a wonderful cast. If you haven't seen any of them, hunt them down. And even if you have ... they reward rewatching.