Jim Henson has been dead for almost 25 years. Hayao Miyazaki is retiring. And Carl Rinsch may have single-handedly killed all hope for anyone getting a lot of money from Hollywood for an original live-action fantasy film for a while. His 47 Ronin was only partly original, too, since it was based on a historical legend. Still, it was a fresh take on the true story with additions of magical and mythical creatures. The movie wasn’t just a flop; it broke the record for biggest box office bomb of all time (maybe even when accounting for inflation). So don’t expect to see any more epic entries into the genre unless they’re sure things with a built-in audience.
Do we need original fantasy films, though? On TV, we have Game of Thrones, which has plenty of imagination in spite of being adapted from the novels of George R.R. Martin, and which is now back on HBO for its fourth season. And there are occasionally great movies sourced from previously written material, as well. For instance, out on home video today there’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of the Smaug, a highly entertaining installment of Peter Jackson’s second (and by most accounts lesser) Tolkien-based trilogy. Occasionally is key, however, as that was one of only three titles on my list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2013 that didn’t have sci-fi elements.
Of course, there’s also Frozen, which didn’t make the cut (perhaps only because even now I’m apparently the only person on Earth who hasn’t seen it) but which could constitute being an original film in spite of being inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” Other recent animated films from America and abroad fit the bill even better, namely Pixar’s Brave, Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells and some of Miyazaki’s work, including his features Spirited Away and Ponyo (not that his adaptations seem unoriginal to anyone). His son, Goro Miyazaki, is starting to follow in his footsteps, and although his first two films are based on books, Tales from Earthsea is accepted as being different enough from the source material by Ursula K. Le Guin that it’s pretty much Goro’s creation.
Outside of animation, original fantasy is something we can usually only dream about. Unless the movie is based on something like the Harry Potter or Twilight books or any major superhero comics, it’s got a tough chance of being a big enough hit to justify its cost. That goes for non-original projects like Jack the Giant Killer, Beautiful Creatures, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and many others, too. Studios are better off banking on sequels to already proven hits (those usually initially adapted from anything from books to amusement park rides), and live-action rehashes of familiar fairy tales previously done in animation form, a la the upcoming Maleficent.
Long gone are the 1980s, when we’d get imaginative films like Henson’s The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, plus Legend, Dragonslayer, Highlander and Willow, not all masterpieces nor any without its heavy share of influences (especially the last one with its near-plagiarism of Tolkien) but each very enjoyable and fresh and inventive for the most part. We even had good modern day-set fantasy films, like Ghostbusters, Big and Splash, the latter two Oscar nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category. Now, instead of coming up with new kinds of mermaid stories, Hollywood is doing another take on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. At least it’ll be directed by Sofia Coppola. Auteurist takes on fairy tales, from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes to Breillat’s recent Bluebird and The Sleeping Beauty prove there’s originality to be delivered in non-original stories.
One common argument for why there aren’t a lot of original fantasy films is that they are dangerously expensive and the genre is just not popular enough. Yet looking at the top-grossing movies of all time, worldwide, the first 25 titles include wizards, Hobbits, supernatural pirate stories, Alice in Wonderland and Avatar, which is more fantasy than sci-fi, just as Star Wars was before it, and both of them original ideas. Being set in space helps their appeal, though. Still, creative filmmakers can do wonders with lower budgets, like Guillermo Del Toro and Pan’s Labyrinth, Andre Ovredal’s Troll Hunter and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, all three of them financial successes — the last a Best Picture nominee, to boot. We go ga-ga anytime there’s an indie sci-fi movie at a film festival, for good reason, and we’d probably do the same for more indie fantasy films.
Technically we already kind of do, given that most festival midnight movies are indeed fantasy, only of the darker sort. Supernatural horror films are also fantasy films, but we don’t tend to classify them in the same boat as adventures like The Lord of the Rings and The Neverending Story. Both the Del Toro and the Ovredal (which is supposed to be remade, of course, by the unoriginals in Hollywood) are pretty close to the line of the horror genre, and anything involving zombies, vampires, ghosts, werewolves and magic mirrors — like this week’s opener Oculus — covers both horror and fantasy boxes. The Cabin in the Woods, acclaimed for its deconstruction of horror movies, isn’t even really a horror movie so much as it’s primarily a fantasy film (with sci-fi elements) that puts the horror genre under a microscope.
If there can be some really interesting original low-budget sci-fi movies and a whole lot of clever, super-cheap horror movies, each divide featuring some degree of special effects and enough imagination to work with familiar conventions yet deliver something qualifiable as original, why couldn’t there be, or aren’t there, more non-scary, non-sci-fi-ish, non-superhero-based, non-animated fantasy films being made today? At the moment it’s as if the idea is the Arthurian sword in the stone and nobody can seem to pull it out from being stuck. Someone out there, please step up and be the one to dislodge the genre and be the king of original live-action fantasy films, whether you can achieve it on a small or big, blockbuster scale.
Consider this your hero’s challenge, young filmmakers, and keep in mind that it might not take much, as currently one of the best original live-action fantasy films of this decade is Seth MacFarlane’s Ted.