A Brief Look at Pre-‘Lord of the Rings’ Fantasy Movies
The second Hobbit
movie, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
is set to hit theaters this week and Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth fiction is considered the pinnacle of high fantasy movies. But before 2001, there were many fantasy movies out before Peter Jackson brought us Lord of the Rings
, so now is a great time to look at the genre.
Fantasy is an ancient form of literature, stemming from Egyptian Mythology, Greek Mythology and Legends, Arthurian legends, the list can go on. Many authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were scholars in ancient mythology, Tolkien was an expert on the Viking Sagas and C.S. Lewis a master in Medieval mythology.
When cinema became an art medium, it gave creators a chance to truly visualize stories and worlds and even the silent era produced fantasy movies, from the work of Georges Méliès to adaptations of novels like Alice in Wonderland
and The Wizard of Oz
As cinema progressed, with more advance techniques, it resulted with more ambitious movies. Technicolor and the grand scenery gave us the classic version of The Wizard of the Oz
, animation brought us many Disney classics and the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen visualized classics of 60s with the Sinbad
movies and Jason and the Argonauts
It was the 80s that was the saw the real high point for fantasy cinema, particularly sword and sorcery. Many big name directors made movies in this period, Ridley Scott, John Milius, John Boorman, Peter Yates, Richard Donner and Ron Howard just to name a few.
In the early 80's, we saw an increase in glorious violence. Two movies that are deserving of their cult classics are the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Conan the Barbarian
and the Arthurian legend movie, Excalibur
. Conan the Barbarian
relished in the violence and the scale and the commanding presence of the Austrian Oak. Excalibur
succeeds on multiple levels, but mostly for its loyal adaptation of Thomas Malory's Le Morte
Director John Boorman doesn't shy away from the violence of battle and the sexual scenes in Excalibur
, making it a rather serious attempt at the genre. Both films are excellent movies worth seeking out and exemplify 80's fantasy films.
One of the biggest influences of the rise of fantasy cinema in the 80's was the success of a little movie known as Star Wars
. Studios wanted to find ways to replicate that success, leading to one strange hybrid, Krull
was a movie that attempted to have its cake and eat it too, with it being set in a medieval fantasy planet that is being invaded by aliens. It was one of the most expensive movies at the time and it bombed badly.
Even LucasArts got in on the act when Ron Howard directed Willow
. Whilst not well received at the time Willow
is now a cult classic, having a respectable 7.1 rating on IMDB.
By the 1990's, high fantasy movies were dying down. The only major example of the period is Dragonheart
, a fairly standard fantasy romp: but what set it apart was the special effects and the CGI which was top notch for the 90s and still holds up to this day.
Another movie from this period was the ill-fated 2000 release of Dungeons & Dragons
. Based on the popular role playing game that has entertained geeks everywhere. It was an atrocious piece of work, notable for Jeremy Irons' over-the-top performance, Marlon Wayans continuing annoyance and the movie was made by the same studio who Lord of the Rings.
Instead, the fantasy genre's home soon came to television. Shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess being popular stables of the second half of the 90's. Arthurian legends were also represented with the miniseries Merlin
, that boasted a cast that featured Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter and Ruter Hauer. Let's also not forget that one of the best shows that HBO has ever produced just so happens to be Game of Thrones, which has reignited the approach for the fantasy genre on television.
Two movies came out in 2001, that raised the bar for the fantasy genre to help elevate it to another level, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
and the rest, as they say, is history.