Friday, May 6, 2011

Blood, sweat and hobbits

The fantasy film genre is a pretty interesting one. To define the genre; fantasy movies have magical, supernatural themes, fantastical, exotic settings, and larger than life characters. To put it simply; the fantasy genre can deal with anything outside the realms of common believability. Then there are a few subcategories of movies within the 'fantasy' genre. There are horror, supernatural, mythological, science fiction, historical, romantic and sword and sorcery fantasy films.

The 'sword and sorcery' sub genre is arguably the most popular fantasy sub class. Sword and sorcery films are fairly self explanatory. Heroes and villains, warriors and wizards, dungeons and dragons. You know sword and sorcery when you see it. It's very Tolkeinesque. They have archetypal characters; clearly defined representations of good and evil, muscle and magic. They almost always have a quasi-medieval undercoat, with a second layer of monsters and sorcery. They have an almost magnetic attraction to most self proclaimed geeks. Throw a magic acorn at a geek film convention and you'll probably hit a six-foot tall dwarven warrior, or a lanky guy with fake, pointy elf ears.

If you take a look at the fantasy movies that Hollywood has produced over the years, you see it's a very hit and miss affair. You really have to wade through the less than great stuff to find the diamonds in the rough. But there are some truly great, genre defining titles out there to enjoy. The problem with making a fantasy movie is usually the cost. To make these fantastical worlds come to life convincingly, a studio has to throw a lot of money towards any given project. Just look at 'The Lord of the Rings'. Stanely Kubrick, when considering taking on the monumental task of directing Tolkein's legendary book trilogy, was quoted as saying that it was 'un-filmable'. Thank Crom for Peter Jackson and company. The other roadblock to a sword and sorcery film's success, is Hollywood's reluctance to take the genre seriously. Despite the mega success of films like the Rings and Star Wars, many studios see fantasy as untested, silly and that it only has a small, niche audience. There is some justification to this attitude. For every Lord of the Rings, there are half a dozen 'Deathstalker's', 'Krull's' and 'Hundra: Barbarian Queen's', or in other words, awful movies.

There are, however, many great, well made, interesting sword and sorcery epic's out there. Here are my top 5...

5. Willow - Willow is a something George Lucas threw together, obviously heavily inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Ron Howard directed the mid-eighties epic about the half-pint, aspiring magician (Warrick Davis), out on an adventure to protect a prophecized child, told to be the only hope of overthrowing the evil Queen. Along the way you get to meet Val Kilmer as a swashbuckling warrior, some hairy trolls and a villain that likes to turn her enemies into pork.

4. Star Wars - Some might argue that the Star Wars trilogy doesn't fit the sword and sorcery genre, but I think it clearly meets the specifications. Star Wars has always felt far more 'fantasy' than 'sci-fi' to me. It has the clear cut, black and white sides of good and evil, the young farm boy that wants to take up his fathers sword, the ominous black knight, the cackling, old evil wizard, and even the unscrupulous, dashing rogue...and his wookie sidekick.

3. Legend - When Ridley Scott, one of the contemporary greats, wants to bring a world to life on film, he really, knows how to bring a world to life on film. Wether it's ancient Rome, sci-fi San Fransisco or a beautiful, fairytale, fantasy world, like the one in 1985's 'Legend'. This flick, about a forest dweller named Jack (Tom Cruise) and his quest to save the princess and the world from the clutches of a maniacal villain (played with relish by Tim Curry), is an underrated film. Every shot looks amazing. Shigeru Miyamoto even sites Legend as a big inspiration for the Legend of Zelda video game series.

2. Conan the Barbarian - Ron E. Howard's Hyboria is a harsh, unforgiving world where you either live by the sword or die upon it, brought to life in his classic series of dark, pulp fantasy novels. When Arnie put on the loincloth and brandished Conan's enormous, phallic, broadsword, a classic was made. This is an eternally watchable epic, complete with blood, sweat, snake cults, larger than life characters, an immersive world and, of course, Crom. Strong in his mountain. This is a top notch production from start to finish. It feels dirty, mythic and darkly poetic, much like Howard's source material. Easy to recommend to anyone that loves action epics.

1. The Lord of the Rings - The trilogy of trilogies. The one trilogy to rule them all. Tolkein's books invented the fantasy genre at large, it's only fitting that a typically epic movie series be made by some truly game changing film makers, tackling the monumental task of putting Middle Earth on film. Peter Jackson knew what he needed to keep from the books, he new what he needed to omit, he kept the spirit that Tolkein instilled in his stories, and made films that would appease the die hard fantasy fans and mainstream audiences alike. Some of the scenes that are brought to life need to be seen to be believed. A film trilogy that belongs in any ones DVD collection.

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