2014: Movies of Interest

In what loook to be an ongoing annual feature here, I thought I’d look ahead at movies coming out in 2014 – especially of the SF&F variety – that have caught my interest… and, in a few cases, which I think I’ll actually see in theaters.

  • The Hobbit: There And Back Again Because duh! Huge epic fantasy fan, here. Not going to miss this one.  If I see only one movie released in 2014 in theaters, this will likely be it. (Even if, as with The Desolation of Smaug, I don’t actually get to see it in the year it is released…) Releases December 17, 2014
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 I liked the Hunger Games movie and, if anything, Catching Fire was even better, IMO.  So I’m looking forward to the next installment in the film series, and I expect there’s a strong likelihood I’ll catch it in Theaters as well.  But I can’t let this go without mentioning how sad I was to hear about the untimely passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Releases November 21, 2014
  • The Lego Movie I am an unrepentant geek.  I had reservations about this movie when I first saw the original trailer, but let’s be honest: this was never not going to win me over.  I mean, it has Batman!  (And not Ben Affleck as Batman!) And also Star Wars!  I expect it to be a glorious medley and hash of everything I love about Legos, and to not make one whit of sense, and still to be oh-so-much fun.  Plus, the reviews of this one are actually pretty fantastic. Something tells me B.T. would get pretty excited about this movie, too, if he knew about it.  Already Released
  • Robocop I loved the original (probably much more violent than I really needed at that age) Robocop as a kid.  So I was naturally curious about this.  On the general topic of reboots and remakes, I sit on the fence: some are good, and some are bad.  And, you know what? I’ve been really impressed by the trailers for this particular remake.  Plus, it looks like some actual thought went into how the themes of the original Robocop are, in some interesting ways, more relevant today than ever, and it looks like this movie is going to explore the implications of those themes in the post Predator-drone world.  I was this close to catching a pre-release screening of this one (courtesy of some opportunities made available through my day job), but the various “winter storms” that have spread across the land like a shadow from Mordor had other plans.  Releases February 12, 2014
  • The Wind Rises Mainly because, as I’ve stated before, I adore the work of Hayao Miyazaki.  This one seems to be grounded in actual history and reality, rather than the typical SF&Fnal themes Miyazaki often explores, but what the heck.  One of these days, I’ll get myself all caught up on Miyazaki.  Releases February 21, 2014
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier I still haven’t gotten caught up with The Avengers and it’s several tentacle-like offshoot movies, so it’s unlikely I’ll see the newest Captain America in Theaters.  But would you look at that: this movie’s got flying aircraft carriers.  How very deiselpunk. Anyway, I enjoyed the first Captain America, so this’ll go on my DVD-for-sure list.  Releases April 4, 2014
  • Godzilla Like Robocop above, this is a remake of a movie I loved as a kid. Given how iconic Godzilla is, you probably did, too.  And, just like Robocop above, this is one where the trailer made me go “Wow, that looks really, really cool”. The same caveats about remakes apply, of course. But… well… this looks really cool.  Releases May 16, 2014
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past I loved the first two X-Men movies back in 2000 and 2003. I felt like they were great adaptations of the X-Men material, and they really helped to usher in the modern era of superhero flicks. But the third X-Men movie was kind of a disaster – a mostly incoherent mishmash of plots, any one of which likely would’ve made a fantastic movie by itself but together felt disjointed.  I haven’t seen an X-Men movie since.  (Okay, let’s be honest: that’s not for lack of interest; X-Men: The Last Stand wasn’t so bad that it soured me on X-Men movies. Rather, between that and the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine I’d gotten married and started grad school and my go-and-see-a-movie-because-I-want-to-on-a-whim free time began evaporating into the black hole of adult responsibility. Hey, it happens.) Since then, though, I’ve really liked the look of what I’ve seen on trailers for First Class and The Wolverine. And Days of Future Past looks like it does a good job of picking up from there, based on some pretty impressive trailers. But I haven’t yet seen First Class or Wolverine (see aforementioned comment on free time versus black hole of adult responsibility).  So I won’t be seeing this in theaters.  But I do want to see it – right after I finish up catching the other X-Men movies I’ve missed on DVD… Releases May 23, 2014
  • Maleficent I’m a sucker for Disney movies. I never quite grew out of them, and I’ve no shame in that (why should someone have to grow out of it, anyway). As mentioned here several times, in general I have mild reservations about remakes – but ultimately I reserve my judgment based on the final product itself. And so far, this one is looking like a very interesting retelling of the classic Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. And, wow, does Angelina Jolie really embody Maleficent so well. Maleficent really is, after all, probably the best animated Disney Villain. My biggest hope for this movie is that, before the end, she turns into a dragon. There aren’t enough dragons in movies, and the dragon from the original Sleeping Beauty was probably one of the top 5 or 6 movie dragons ever.  Releases May 30, 2014
  • Edge of Tomorrow So… it’s Groundhog’s Day but with an alien invasion and powered armor suits? Color me… intrigued at the very least. I know there weren’t a lot of positive reviews for Cruise’s most recent science-fictional outing, but I’m still interested enough to be watching this one very closely. I mean, what’s not to love about the formulation above? Releases June 6, 2014
  • How To Train Your Dragon 2 Remember when I said there weren’t enough dragons in movies? I stand by that, but this movie helps to close the gap. I pretty much loved the first How To Train Your Dragon, and this looks like it’s going to take the world that was explored in that movie and really push its boundaries. I’d be delighted to return to that world, and to experience more dragony goodness. In all honesty, I expect this to be a fantastic movie. Releases June 14, 2014
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I haven’t seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes yet, though it’s on my to-rent-on-DVD-when-I-have-time-to-watch-movies list. I don’t expect that time to magically materialize between now and when this movie comes out, so I don’t expect to see this in theaters. But there were a lot of good reviews for Rise, and Dawn looks to be just as good. It looks like this new Planet of the Apes series is taking the basic premise of the original and really finding some interesting and compelling new stories to tell based on that premise. Releases July 11, 2014
  • Into the Woods I know nothing about this except that it is, I believe, an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name. In which case, I’ve got to put this on my list. I’ve long wanted to see the Broadway show. Releases December 25, 2014

Honorable Mentions

There are a few movies that have landed on my radar that I’m currently on-the-fence about. I’ve just no way of knowing how I’ll feel about these, yet, and for most of them I expect I’ll be plenty happy waiting for the reviews to come in before I decide if I want to see these at some point…

Noah This looks potentially epic.  Hey, it’s about the end of the world… albeit one that occurred a long time ago. (It’s alright.  The world got better…)  And of course, there’s the little fact that this is based on one of the primary mythic narratives of several of the world’s major religions.  All that said, I would not shun an opportunity to see this, were it to arise.  Releases March 28, 2014

Transendence A movie about the Singularity, and of course this being Hollywood the Singularity is a bad thing. But it’s also got Johnny Depp not being a quirky pirate, or a quirky vampire, or a quirky denizen of nonsense-land, or a quirky Native American sidekick, or a quirky anything really. Actually… it looks like he’s basically the bad guy and it looks like he plays it pretty straight.  That alone might be worth seeing. Releases April 18, 2014

Interstellar What is this about? The trailer says I’m a deep movie about pushing human frontiers, and also I’m emotionally complex, or something, but damned if I have a plot. IMBD says it’s about “explorers” using a “newly discovered wormhole” to make an “interstellar voyage”. To where? And why? So far mum’s the word. It’s directed by Christopher Nolan. That’s good. It stars Matthew McConaughy. Yawn. It’s an original story, not a remake, adaptation, or sequel. That’s interesting. So this is on the radar, but right now I know too little about it to judge how high my interest will be.  Releases November 7, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 I’m still not ready for the too-soon Spider-Man reboot. Give it a couple years, and I’m sure Tobey Maguire’s turn as the web-slinger will be enough of a memory that I’ll be able to enjoy these movies.  Releases May 2, 2014

Jupiter Ascending In theory this is all a super-cool Epic Fantasy Space Opera whiz-bang bonanza. It’s from the Wachowski Siblings, who previously brought us The Matrix (Yay!) and also Speed Racer (Boo!) and also Cloud Atlas (Bwuh?). This could go any way. My personal bet, though: this is going to be 2014’s box office boondoggle. So far there just doesn’t sound like there’s anything truly original in this story – it’s all generic “poor or orphaned young person is secretly destined to destroy the evil tyrannical dictator”. You know, like orphans do. I enjoy that basic storyline as much as the next Epic Fantasy fan, but I like to have something truly new added to that mix. And making the poor young destiny-laden hero a girl doesn’t exactly count as new.  (It’s not a bad idea that the Chosen One is a she – that’s certainly a welcome addition to the oeuvre of the trope – but gender-swapping tropes is nothing particularly new.) Releases July 18, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Do we need a remake of the Turtles? Yeah, as a kid I thought they were awesome. I’m sure today’s kids will also think they’re awesome. I’ll just have to wait-and-see, I guess, how I’ll actually feel about this once I catch a couple trailers and maybe see some buzz and/or reviews… Releases August 8, 2014

The Maze Runner In an ideal world, I’d want to read the book, first. I’ve heard it’s actually a pretty good book. The basic plot outline certainly leaves me intrigued: a kid with amnesia finds himself awaking in the middle of a maze with no explanation, and must become part of a community of kids who have likewise been deposited in this maze.  And, you know, maybe solve the maze and figure out what’s going on here? At least, I’d guess that’s where the story wants to go. (Like I said, I haven’t read this yet, and while it’s on my reading list, it was pretty far down on the list behind lots of other stuff I also want to read.)  Releases September 19, 2014

The Boxtrolls The teasers I’ve seen for this make it look positively charming, and I love the stop-motion aesthetic. But this doesn’t have the look of “must-see on the big screen”. Still, I imagine it will be a wonderfully entertaining movie.  Releases September 26, 2014

Movies from 2013

2013’s movie outings went pretty much as expected.

I saw 4 movies that were released in 2013, the first of which was Man of Steel.  This was also my biggest disappointment of the year.  I’d give the movie somewhere between a B+ and an A-.  But it could have been, should have been, an A+.  The pieces were almost all there – IMHO, a solid script and excellent casting and acting capability – but I think the directing by Zack Snyder left… something to be desired.  It was frenetic and action-oriented and left too-little time for character building and spent way, way, way too much time on stuff blowing up. How his continued helmsmanship of the DC-Universe movies figures into things does not fill me with hope for the future of my two favorite superheroes.  (I’m still unreservedly against Bat-fleck, and despite my love of this material, I’m convinced that Man of Steel II will be a disastrous box office bomb.  When it happens… nobody can say WB wasn’t warned.)

The next three movies I saw from 2013 I didn’t actually see until this year, and include one surprise visit from last year’s Honorable Mention list.  Of course, my other two top 2013 movies are on this list – Catching Fire and The Desolation of Smaug – both great and entertaining movies that, if anything topped the first of their respective series.  And then there was Frozen.  When I wrote up my movies list for 2013 I didn’t know much about Frozen.  Turns out it was a great Disney movie in the classical Disney style. It was also B.T’s first bonafide going-to-the-movies experience.  (His favorite part, he says, was when the princess turned to ice. Also the reindeer. And the snowman.)

I still want desperately to see Pacific Rim, which I heard described as either “the most awesome dumb movie, or the dumbest awesome movie” ever. Some inner-child in me fills with squee at the very thought of such a delightful concept.  Other than that, though, 2013 went as well as can be expected in terms of movie watching for a family man with a newborn infant in the house.

2013: Movies of Interest

The first of the two big Movie Seasons is almost upon us… indeed I daresay it starts rather soon.  Last year, I wrote about the upcoming flicks that had captured my interest.  I thought it would be a fine idea to do so again.  In fact, if I can remember in time next year, maybe this’ll be an annual feature.

Here are the movies that have caught my interest this year, in a sort-of-order of my interest:

  1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug With a few relatively minor caveats (Storm Giants, anyone? What the Helsinki was that, and how, exactly, was it even remotely necessary for the movie?) I thoroughly enjoyed the first of the planned Hobbit trilogy, as I had expected to.  Being a huge fan of both the Lord of the Rings books and movies, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that the next Hobbit movie is my top flick-to-see in 2013.
  2. Man of Steel Only one comicbook superhero ranks higher on my all-time favorite list than Batman, and that is his boyscout, super-powered, primary-color-clad sometimes friend and rival Superman.  So yes: I plan to see the latest incarnation of the cinematic Superman, and I have very high hopes.
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Dear Wife and I quite enjoyed first Hunger Games movie (well, I did; I can’t really speak for Dear Wife, but it is my belief that she enjoyed it).  I finished reading all three books last year, and I’m quite looking forward to the second installment in the film franchise.

    Those are the movies that I expect I’ll actually see in the theaters.  After that… there’s a big drop in the likelihood that I think I’ll manage to catch anything else on this list.


  5. Pacific Rim I think I’ve mentioned before how much of an anime geek I am.  Not the hugest one around, but still… enough of one that I totally grok where this movie is going.  Giant Robots (called “Jaegers“, no less) versus Giant Monsters (“Kaiju“).  This is totally live-action anime.  And so, I’m excited for this movie.  I figure, though, that this could go one of two ways: this could be this year’s Inception… or this could be this year’s Prometheus.  With Guillermo Del Toro directing, I’m hopeful it’s more like the latter… but then again, Ridley Scott carried a lot of cache into Prometheus… Assuming the sci-fi and fantasy community tends to lean more toward the former than the latter, then you can be sure, even if I miss this in theaters, I’ll queue it up on DVD as soon as I’m able.
  6. Star Trek: Into Darkness I saw and enjoyed 2009’s Star Trek reboot – although a few things about it left me unsettled. (Red Matter?  And really, [Spoilers] did you need to blow up Vulcan?  And with all that time-traveling going on, you really couldn’t, you know, travel back in time and save the planet?  The last fact really miffed me fiercely.  Once you’ve established that time travel is an option, you better have a dang good reason why it can’t be used again to undo later events in the story.)  Regardless of those snafus, I enjoyed the Star Trek reboot enough that I’m very interested to see the next in the new series.  Added to that the mystery of who, precisely, Benedict Cumberbatch is playing – is it Kahn Noonien Singh? Is it Gary Mitchell? Is it some other dude who combines the attributes of Kahn and Mitchell? – adds to the intrigue and interest in this film.  As I expect this movie will skip the time travel plot problems of Star Trek, I expect this will actually be a better movie.  Still… I figure I’m unlikely (all things considered) to catch this in theaters.  So, as with Pacific Rim, I’m sure I’ll be queueing this up on DVD as soon as available.
  7. Oblivion The trailer for this flick has at least intrigued me – it’s hinted that not is all as it seems for Tom Cruise’s character, nor for desolate planet Earth in the far future.  But what really catches my interest: Morgan Freeman as some sort of Resistance/Rebel leader.  Is there any role that is not automatically cooler when played by Morgan Freeman?  That gives me promise that this film can live up to the ideas presented in its trailers.
  8. After Earth ‘Tis the Year for “In the Future, Earth has been abandoned by Humans”, isn’t it?  The attraction of this particular version of that story is in having real-life father-and-son acting team Will and Jaden Smith play a father and son stranded on an inhospitable future Earth struggling to survive.  The downside? It’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan (whose last few movies have not exactly been great, and who lost whatever remaining goodwill he had left as a director when he miscast and ruined the fundamentally un-ruinable big screen adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender) – so don’t expect the trailers to pint that little fact out.  The possible saving grace? This is Will Smith’s baby more than it is Shyamalan’s.  Regardless, I’m interested, but I’ll see what the critics have to say.
  9. Ender’s Game This one very nearly snuck up on me.  There’s very little buzz about Ender’s Game that I’ve seen so far.  Many, many years ago I read (and enjoyed) the novel as well as the companion novel (Ender’s Shadow).  I have yet to read (and not a terrible great interest in reading) the supposed sequels to Ender’s Game. (My understanding, for the most part, is that they diverge in some pretty radical ways from the story, characters, and world presented in Ender’s Game.) Anyway… I’m interested to see and hear more about this before casting judgment.
  10. World War Z Funny… I think I saw this title on a list of movies I made somewhere, once before.  Oh yeah: It was last year’s list.  Obviously, World War Z didn’t make it out in 2012.  But I find myself more interested now than I was then, thanks to several trailers that have given me a better idea of the film.  On the other hand… long delays and changes in release dates usually don’t bode well for a film.
  11. Elysium What was that I said above about the year for desolate or abandoned future Earths? Okay, so the Earth of Elysium isn’t really desolate or abandoned, but it may as well be: it’s a place where the poor and downtrodden are confined while the rich live high above.  (And the meek shall inhereit the Earth?)  What Elysium has going for it is a top-calibre cast, including Matt Damon and Jodi Foster.  Again, however, other than this, I know relatively little about the movie.  So I’ll take the wait-and-see approach.
  12. The Wolverine Remember when I said Superman was the superhero who ranked just above Batman at the top of my personal superhero pantheon?  The guy right below Batman is Wolverine.  And yet… I did not see the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie.  I heard the reviews were pretty bad.  But I’m open-minded.  I’ll wait and see what the buzz says about Logan’s second solo-outing.  On a semi-related note… I’m still keen to catch X-Men: First Class on DVD some time.

Honorable Mentions:

These are the movies I feel like I want to see (in theaters, where possible). But a few other movies have hit my radar, too. Some of these I have no interest in seeing theaters, but may be interested to catch on DVD later, some it’s practically too late to catch in theaters, and some I just don’t know enough about.

Oz the Great and Powerful There’s no way I’ll find the time to see this before it makes its way out of theaters.  I’m interested in it, but not enough to try to make the time, and especially not enough to to press the issue when there’s a brand new wee bairn at home.

Frozen Frankly, I don’t know enough about this movie yet.  I think it’s an animated Epic Fantasy sort of movie.  But… I’m not really sure I’ve read about it right.  If and when I hear more, I’ll make a judgment at that time.

Monster’s University It’s Pixar and it’s not Cars.  So that’s a good thing.  On the otherhand, while I enjoyed the previous Monster’s Inc., I didn’t love it enough to want a sequel.  This movie seems… I dunno… gratuitous.  But because it’s Pixar and, Cars and Cars 2 notwithstanding, Pixar has a lot of goodwill with me, I can almost garauntee I’ll watch it on DVD at some point.

The Lone Ranger I was convinced, when I heard about this, that it had “Epic Flop of John Carter Proportions” written all over it.  I thought: Johnny Depp (no matter how good an actor he is) in a racially insensitive portrayal of Tonto?  This thing is going to get cremated in the blogosphere!  Now I’ve seen the trailers and I’m… less convinced.  And the buzz is actually pretty decent.  And word is Disney has done a lot of legwork (enough? I don’t know) to make good with Native Americans over the casting and portrayal of Tonto.  (I’m that mythical “1/16th” Native American, which basically doesn’t mean anything, except that a deep respect for Native American peoples has been passed down in my family, owing to that ancestry as told in family legend.  I haven’t done the genealogy work to back up that claim.  But the end result is that I’m a little sensitive to the question of how American Indians are portrayed in stories.)  So… If all that holds true… well… you can expect The Lone Ranger to do bonzo at the Box Office.

Iron Man 3 I have not seen Iron Man 2 (nor, for that matter, The Avengers).  So I know there is Zero Percent chance I’ll make it out to see Iron Man 3.  I at least owe it to the movie to see the two preceeding flicks (even if I still manage to avoid Thor because I think the idea of “Thor” as a superhero character is basically a bit cheesy and overwrought).  I did see and enjoy the first Iron Man movie, though, and I enjoyed Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Stark.  So, whenever I get around to picking up Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, I’ll eventually follow that up with Iron Man 3.

What happened to 2012’s Movies?

As for the 2012 movies that I had listed previously?  As alluded above, I did see the first Hobbit movie and the first Hunger Games movie.  I also caught Dark Knight Rises and Brave at the theaters.  I did not get a chance to see The Secret World of Arietty, but that’s okay, because I’ve always consumed anime on the small-screen in the past.  (I love Hayao Miyazaki, but I’ve never seen a Miyazaki movie in theaters.)  Prometheus was… well… based on all the reviews I heard, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  And life’s too short to waste a few hours on a basically dumb movie.  The Amazing Spider-Man, as predicted, I did not see.  I still expect I’ll see it on DVD eventually.  Also didn’t see The Avengers, so no, I did not contribute to that massive box office haul.  John Carter, I heard, was actually better than many gave it credit for.  But, again… well… my own sense of it was not super-positive from the trailers.  (I said it looked “vistual-tastic”, but I also worried, based on the trailers, that there wasn’t much “there there”.  I still sort of feel that way.)  Again, life’s too short. 

So, that’s where I stand on movies in 2013.  How’s about you?

The Fantasy Movie Canon

The Hobbit is now only two weeks away from release, and upon it’s arrival it will doubtless ascend to a high place in the Fantasy Movie Canon.  Needles to say, I’m excited about it.

And in celebration and anticipation of the imminent release of The Hobbit, I thought now would be a great time to delve into what I, personally, consider to be the Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, because I haven’t seen every fantasy movie ever.  But it’s the list that exists in my own head and heart.

To do this, and limit the number of movies in my list to a reasonable number, I had to make a number of rules.

First: a complete movie series or cycle gets one entry.  So, Harry Potter doesn’t fill eight movie slots.  Many great fantasy movies are stand-alones, but several really high-quality ones exist as part of a series, so this rule was necessary to keep them from consuming the list alive.

Second: I’m only listing live-action movies here.  There are tons, tons, TONS of great fantasy-themed animated movies.  From classic Disney movies to the greats of anime and everything in between… I don’t think I could even begin to list them all in a coherent fashion.  Since I’m celebrating the release of the live-action Hobbit, I thought it useful to limit my celebration to live-action movies.

Third: I’m trying to limit my selection to movies that got an actual theatrical release.

Fourth: I have to limit what I mean by “fantasy”.  I’m talking about movies in which magic, the supernatural, or the mythical play an important part of the story.  I’m not talking about superhero movies.  I’m not talking about sci-fi movies.  Generally, I’m not talking about holiday-themed (especially Christmas-themed) movies.  I’m not talking about movies with spaceships, or weird and implausible science or people with mutations, or just anything that’s generally just unrealistic.  I’m also not talking about horror or semi-horror movies.  I love all sorts of movies in all of those categories, but I’m after a particular subset of this broader “fantasy” genre.  I’m talking magic spells, wizards, dragons, fairies, myths and legends, and what-have-you of this sort.

So, with the rules out of the way… here it is (drumroll please):

The Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

There can be little doubt that this movie series is rightfully ranked at the top of the Fantasy Canon.  It was not only ground-breaking in terms of the technology used to tell the tale and the breathtaking visuals and the overall quality of the production itself… but it is a powerfully-moving adaptation of the the single-most genre-defining epic of fantasy literature.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy undeniably deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating the market for literary epic fantasy.  Peter Jackson’s adaption proved that a fantasy movie could be not only good entertainment, but great art.  These movies are the only ones on this list that won Academy Awards not only on technical merits, but for Best Movie and Best Director.  It is, in a word, a masterpiece.

2. The Princess Bride

“As you wish.”

“Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”


“You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I could go on, but you get the idea.  This movie is not a special effects extravaganza.  The magic is subtle and amusing, but not overtly visual.  It is not typically cited as a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

But on the strength of its script alone, and the amazingly perfect performances of its terrific cast, this is the only movie that can even come close to claiming the number-two spot on the Fantasy Canon list.  Few movies have made so indelible an impact on the popular culture.  Few movies warrant (or reward) relentless rewatching.  Few movies are so amazingly quotable.  Few movies rise to the level of The Princess Bride.

3. The Wizard of Oz

The Lord of the Rings trilogy may perhaps be the most honored movie on this list insofar as the Academy Awards are concerned.  But The Wizard of Oz is perhaps one of the most recognizable and enduringly popular films of all, and ranks among the most decorated and honored.  While it didn’t win a Best Picture Academy Award it did, unlike almost every other film on this list, get nominated (which really is, by itself, an honor).  And it continues to get recognized as one of the greatest movies of any genre of all time.

The 1939 movie was so defining that it left an impact on the popular culture that can still be seen and felt today, nearly three-quarters of a century after its release.  Every adaptation and interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s original stories is impacted by this movie.  There are Tony Award-winning musicals (Wicked, which I’ve seen and is a terrific musical) that exist only because this movie exists.  There’s even a latter-day prequel that’s about to come out (Oz: The Great and Powerful).

It’s had it’s impact on me, too.  I still remember the first time I saw it.  We didn’t watch a lot of black-and-white movies or classic movies growing up, but apparently this one was important enough that my dad made a big deal of it.  So we gathered together to watch this old, classic, depressingly black-and-white movie.  (As a note: I no longer have the same feelings about black-and-white stuff that I did in my childhood.)  Imagine how impressed and awed I was as my dad waved his hand magically at the TV when Dorothy first awakes in Oz, and everything explodes in brilliant, even riotous color: brighter than anything I was then used to on television.  It made me believe in the magic of the Wizard.

4. The Harry Potter Octology

The Harry Potter movies are not adaptations without faults, let it be said.  On a whole, their quality is uneven, though each of the eight movies is generally quite good and some of the entries in the series even border on great.  On average, the movies get better with each entry as the actors portraying the lead parts get better at their craft.

Given these caveats, why do I rank these movies so highly on the list?

For the sheer audacity of trying to interpret a seven-book epic fantasy series with over a million words of fiction for the big screen.  And for trying to maintain, throughout this process, some artistic cohesion and integrity and faithfulness to the books.

This was not an easy accomplishment, and if the films fell short of perfection, it was only because of how highly they aimed.  That they came so close at all to achieving it is quite remarkable.  The resulting series is a highly watchable and highly enjoyable epic fantasy series: there is magic, whimsy, adventure, danger, and love.  In short, there is everything you need to have a good time enjoying a fantasy movie, and I’ll wager these films will stand the test of time.

5. Willow

For serious fans of fantasy in film, I’m sure the inclusion of this movie will come as no surprise.  For the casual fans, this may be the first you’ve heard of it.

It has a plot that’s derivative of The Lord of the Rings… but in reverse: instead of taking the magic token into the heart of darkness to destroy it, the diminutive hero of Willow is trying to smuggle his magic token (in this case, a baby) as far away from the heart of darkness (the fortress of the evil queen Bavmorda) as he can take it, because the baby in question is prophesied to bring about the end of the evil queen’s reign.

Derivative or no, Willow really is a great movie.  While not quite as quotable as The Princess Bride, it still has some really memorable and often hilarious moments.  Try: “Go in the direction the bird is flying.”  “He’s going back to the village!”  “Ignore the bird; follow the river.”

Or: “I stole the baby from you while you were taking a peepee!”

Or: “What are you looking at?”  “Your leg.  I’d like to break it.”

Or: “That way!”

Or: “Not A Woman?!”  “Gentelman… Meet Lug.”

Again, I could go on… but if you haven’t already seen Willow, none of these quotes will be nearly as funny to you.  Combined with this quotable potential are some really snazzy special effects that were quite good back in the late 80s (and which even today are still pretty impressive): from a fire-breathing wyrm, to magical transmogrification, to a wizard’s deul with competing fireballs and ice blasts.  And there are lots of awesome, old-school sword fights.  So… if you love fantasy movies and if you haven’t already, you should take the time and watch it.

6. The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal was truly Jim Henson (in collaboration with Brian Froud of Fairy fame) at his finest.  These puppets are not your fuzzy green frogs or friendly neighborhood Fraggles.  What Jim Henson brought us with The Dark Crystal was a fully-realized fantasy world totally independent of our own.  It had its own flora and fauna, its own visual style, its own magic, its own sense of being.  There has been almost nothing that rivals it on terms of visual imagination or creativity either before or since.  I can still remember the awe I felt the first time I saw Aughra’s massive orrery swing into motion.

There are no human actors in the world of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal.  Every character and every being in this elaborate fantasy is fully realized using honest-to-goodness puppetry.  But they never feel like puppets.  Every creature and every character feels fully alive.

The plot of The Dark Crystal isn’t spectacularly original: a diminutive elf-like hero has to go on a journey to destroy a powerful magical artifact that will otherwise allow a race of evil vultures to conquer and rule the world for a thousand years.  But even if the plot isn’t fantastically original, this amazing movie will still keep you sucked in and wanting more.

7. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This was not the first adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (not even the first live action adaptation).  Nor was it the only film in this series.  But it is the only one that I feel merits inclusion on this list.

Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” are children’s books, but of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t great fantasy stories.  And the original book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is one of the best.  For one thing, the story of this one is different and more unique: it’s not a straightforward quest fantasy like so many others.

And of all the adaptations of the book that I’ve seen, this one ranks as very likely the best, and is likewise the best of the movies produced in this series of adaptations of Lewis’s books.  It tells a complete tale, one that doesn’t need the additional movies to enjoy.  And it fulfills the promise of magic that you would expect if you’d read the books.  All in all, this movie was a delight to see, and for that reason, it deserves a place on this list.

8. Dragonslayer

A movie that many – even many fans of fantasy – may not be familiar with is the 1981 film Dragonslayer.

In this epic fantasy tale, a wizard’s apprentice takes it upon himself to slay the dragon that is terrorizing a medieval kingdom after the wizard’s death.  The people of the kingdom have protected themselves from the ravages of the dragon by offering up their daughters as a sacrifice to the monster, chosen by lottery.  But the kingdom is upturned when the King’s daughter, upon learning that her name has been excluded from the lottery, replaces all the lots with her own name, making the erstwhile Dragonslayer the King’s only hope.

It’s  a classic dragon story ripped from the pages of mythology: but the movie delivers some genuinely unique twists on this ancient formula.

All that alone would not likely make this movie the classic that it deserves to be credited as, save for one critical element of the movie: Vermithrax Pejorative.  That’s the name of the dragon from this movie.  And even though the special effects are clearly dated by modern standards, Vermithrax stands as one of the greatest movie dragons – if not the greatest – of all time.  The creature design, the modeling: this dragon felt real, and it really breathed fire.  It was a true menace, and a true mythic monster.  If you haven’t seen Dragonslayer, and  you’re  a fantasy fan, you owe it to yourself to pick it up and watch it.  It’s truly one of the most underrated fantasy films ever.

9. Labyrinth

I don’t know… there’s just something about David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” (which is quite catchy), and his bizarre and mesmerizing turn as the Goblin King.  And all the Jim Henson creations, of course.  There are also moments of surprising sadness and profoundly absurd whimsy.

I can’t say I’m surprised that Jim Henson and Brian Froud make two appearances on this list.  That said, the creatures of the Labyrinth are all decidedly more muppet-like and are less refined than those found in the earlier The Dark Crystal.  But still: imagination abounds, here, and powerfully so.

And when all is said and done, this is just a fun movie to watch.

What’s interesting about this movie is how compelling the protagonist is: she’s fully human and motivated throughout the movie by very human emotions.  She’s not a typical, high-minded hero.  She’s not out to save the world or defeat evil.  She’s just trying to rescue her baby brother, who’s been stolen by the Goblin King.  Not because she loves the little tyke, but because of more complex motivations including guilt and fear.  She was responsible for the Goblins taking the baby in the first place, calling upon the Goblin King in a moment of resentment.  The emotional depth of the character makes the story more interesting.

10. The Neverending Story

The story-within-a-story and the interplay between book and reader made The Neverending Story a strong metaphor for my own fantasy life, as a child.  Given the enduring popularity of this film, I would venture to guess this is true for others as well.

For readers of fantasy literature, The Neverending Story is a resonant reflection of their inner lives: many fans of fantasy have reason to identify closely with the bullied Bastian, and recognize their experience of total immersion in the world of a fantasy novel that the movie portrays.

Fantasia itself is like the imagination of the fantasy fan: a shifting, unknowable, unmappable place, constantly surprising and constantly changing as new ideas and new discoveries are made.  And it is a place that can’t exist without the engagement of the imagination.  In the end, it’s a place that can’t exist without the imagination of the story’s true hero: the reader of the book.

This portrayal of the reader as hero makes The Neverending Story a unique and important entry in the Fantasy Cinema Canon.

pirates_of_the_caribbean_sm11. The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy

Yes, I realize that there are actually four “Pirates” movies, not three.  But, first of all, I haven’t seen the fourth movie and, second, the first three tell a complete, closed story arc.  Regardless of the existence of a mostly unrelated fourth movie, that makes the first three “Pirates” movies a trilogy.

And, well… despite some unfortunate misfires, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy really is a rip-roaring and highly entertaining fantasy trilogy.  Johnny Depp’s turn as the wildly eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow was both hilarious and engrossing.  Don’t tell me you didn’t fall in love with the character the moment you first saw him on screen, perched atop the crow’s nest of his sinking skiff.  Not to mention Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, plus Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Swan.  All fantastic actors and truly memorable characters.

In fact, not since The Princess Bride has there been such a fantastic, funny, and engaging ensemble cast in a fantasy film.  And so, despite some of the significant misfires in these movies, they still deserve to take a place on the Fantasy Canon.

dragonheart12. Dragonheart

While Draco, the heroic, good dragon of Dragonheart, doesn’t quite hold a candle to Vermithrax Pejorative, he is nonetheless a pretty spectacular cinema dragon (probably the third best to appear on screen; the second-best dragon having appeared in a mostly otherwise execrable non-fantasy flick that I won’t mention).  Dragonheart tells a fantastic, traditional heroic tale in which good and evil struggle for the fate of a kingdom.

It’s not a groundbreaking or deep movie, there aren’t many surprises, and you could even argue that the script and plot are a tad trite.  But it’s a movie that truly believes in the idea of dragons, and the fantastic world they represent.

And it did something else that was important and groundbreaking: Draco was the first fully computer-generated character with a speaking role in a theatrical film (voiced perfectly by Sean Connery, whose acting was also captured to provide Draco’s expressions).   As such, he paved the way for Gollum and, ultimately for Smaug.  And that deserves some recognition.

(Now, the less said about the uninspired Direct-to-Video sequel, the better.)

jasonandtheargonauts-skeleton-fight_sm13. The Harryhausen Cycle

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original The Clash of the Titans aren’t strictly a single movie series: none are sequels or prequels or at all related to the others.  But these three movies do hold something else very important in common: each is a classic of fantasy film on which Ray Harryhausen’s special effects genius was on display.

Ray Harryhausen is the pioneer of stop-motion animation, an early special effects technique that made some of the most amazing fantasy images possible for the first time.

Harryhausen made possible fantastic sword fights with animated skeletons and six-armed goddesses of destruction.  He brought to life Medusa, the Cyclops, Pegasus and the Kraken.  And he did these in an age when computer-generated graphics in movies was still a notion of science fiction, rather than movie science fact.  His artistic and technological breakthroughs made possible the most amazing movie images of his day.  And still today, his works have left their permanent mark on the popular culture.  What more can be said but this:

“Release the Kraken!”

Honorable Mention: The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Per the original rules I set out at the start of this post, I couldn’t include the original “Star Wars” Trilogy.  There are spaceships, lasers, and robots. All very non-fantasy things.  Indeed, many people classify “Star Wars” as Sci Fi or, to be more exact, Space Opera.

But let’s be frank: “Star Wars” is a fantasy movie.  There are magic swords, a wise mystic who guides the young hero (only to expire at an inopportune time, forcing the hero to step up), a beautiful princess and a dark lord.  There’s a mysterious, magical power possessed by an ancient order of warrior-wizards.  (Unexplained, of course, because we’re ignoring the Prequel Trilogy; the explanation there basically sucked, and didn’t make sense, anyway.)  I could go on, but in short, the original “Star Wars” Trilogy had all the ingredients of a major Epic Fantasy movie series.

And of all the movies listed here, none can be said to have had as powerful an impact on the popular culture as “Star Wars”.  No characters are more instantly recognizable and memorable as those from Star Wars.

So there you have it: the Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema.  These are the movies that are must-see for fans of Fantasy.

But hey, don’t take my word for it.  See them for yourself!

Speaking of… have you seen all of these movies?  Would you order them differently?  What movies did I miss that really should be included on the Fantasy Cinema Canon?  Talk back in the comments and share your knowledge of Fantasy Movie Trivia.

Sing Your Heart Out, Anakin Skywalker

This was too funny and/or true not to post… Perhaps you’re familiar with the Gotye song (and video) that everyone recently fell in love with?

Here’s a version for all you true-blue Star Wars fans out there:

(You know this one’s for you.)

Movie Adaptations

Dear Wife and I recently went out to see “The Hunger Games” movie, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my reaction to the movie, and about how it compares to my reaction to the book.  And this got me thinking about the movie adaptations of books more generally.

One word of warning: as I discuss my thoughts on this subject, I’m bound to offer some spoilers from the movies and books I touch on. 

With respect to “The Hunger Games”, there were things I enjoyed about the movie.  It was certainly, in my opinion, a good movie worth seeing and I’m actually eager to see it again when it’s available to watch at home.  There were elements of the movie that made it superior to reading the book.  But there were elements that definitely made it inferior to the book as well. 

For example: the additional scenes focusing on Seneca and President Snow and Haymitch add a lot to the story – a depth that you don’t get from the book alone.  The scene that shows the reaction of Rue’s father after her death in the Games, and the resulting riot in District 11, was much more powerful on an emotional level than the abstraction of Katniss receiving a baked loaf and realizing it came from District 11.  On the other hand, the use of “Shaky Cam” was so disruptive in the early scenes that viewers never really felt settled in this world.  Even more problematic, the movie treated the relationship between Katniss and Rue in such a cursory fashion that the viewer doesn’t have time to be impressed by that relationship before Rue’s death.  I imagine that the viewer that hasn’t read the books might be a tad perplexed as to why Katniss reacts so strongly: poor Rue only had maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, tops (and that’s being generous by counting scenes in which she appears in the background), before her tragic death.  You really only understand how important this relationship was by reading the book. 

As I contemplated this, I realized something. Continue reading

Still Brave


I wrote briefly about Pixar’s upcoming movie, Brave, back in July.  But have you seen the trailers?

This is looking pretty good.  It’s certainly piqued my interest… again.

My top movies for 2012, so far, are looking like this:

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Because duh!  Huge fantasy nerd, here.  Definitely seeing this one in the theaters.
  2. The Dark Knight Rises After the last Batman flick, The Dark Knight, both Dear Wife and I left the theory feeling terrified and unsettled. This is not the normal reaction you’re supposed to get from a superhero movie. But I am fascinated by the dark, uncompromising, and true-to-life vision of Christopher Nolan’s Batman. And I want to see how he brings this saga to an end.
  3. The Hunger Games Dear Wife and I will both enjoy seeing this.  I just recently read the book, and Dear Wife just recently re-read it.
  4. Brave (in a statistical tie for #3) because, well… because Pixar, and because those trailers
  5. The Secret World of Arrietty I’m a pretty big fan of Hayao Miyazaki. I’m predisposed to liking Anime in general, but Miyazaki’s works transcend the genre, and are beautiful and wonderful storytelling. This isn’t a Miyazaki-directed flick, but it’s by his studio (Studio Ghibli), and he’s an Executive Producer, so it’s still got his stamp on it.
  6. Prometheus It looks very rated-R, which is something the denizens of the Casa Chez Watkins typically eschew, so I probably won’t see it.  But it is based on the Alien franchise, of which I partook before the days of my trying not to see too many rated-R flicks, so I am still quite fascinated by it – and it looks to be a much more intriguing and intelligent movie than the last few entries in the Alien series.
  7. The Amazing Spider-Man I’m still miffed they ruined the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire franchise, and still think it’s too soon; and yet this looks pretty decent.  I may not catch it in theaters, but I’ll probably still see it eventually.
  8. Is there a number 8?  Lots of spectacle-flicks this year (The Avengers, John Carter), but nothing that really and deeply excites me.  The Avengers looks to rely too much on last year’s Thor which I didn’t see and which just didn’t strike much interest in me compared to other Marvel titles like Captain America (and the Thor-connection in Captain America annoyed me) and Iron Man.  And John Carter… looks very visual-tastic… but something gives me the sense there isn’t very much there there.  Another title that I might put on my list is World War Z; but so far I just haven’t seen enough about it to form an solid opinion.

Anyway, I hope to see my top 4 in theaters (it’s probably already too late for Arrietty).  Any of these on your radar?

Steampunk Musketeers

So… Steampunk Three Musketeers?

I’m sold.

Why Pixar Works: A Funny Review of Cars II

So, this weekend past, the only Pixar movie which I actually intend to actively avoid came out: “Cars 2”.  I mentioned before that I was rather underwhelmed by the first “Cars” movie – the only Pixar movie I didn’t enjoy – and that this was the reason I don’t intend to see the sequel.

But I did read a review of the new Pixar movie that had a very amusing line that highlights why Pixar movies are so, well, awesome (and further serves to highlight why “Cars” was an aberration from their normal record), and I wanted to share it, since I’d written a few times about Pixar in the past.

In contrasting Pixar’s “Cars” to other Pixar movies, reviewer Glen Kenny talks about how, comparatively, “Cars” lacked the depth of characterization and theme that ran so strongly in through other Pixar hits, which may have led some (myself included in that number) to be disappointed that they chose “Cars” for the sequel treatment over some of their other, harder-hitting movies.  And then he said this:

But like I said: I’m relieved. Don’t get me wrong, I adored “Toy Story 3,” but the damn thing absolutely traumatized me (and my poor wife, who unlike myself does not deserve to be traumatized). So what I want right about now is a Pixar movie that IS NOT going to make me cringe and cry like a 3-year-old who’s convinced that Mommy just isn’t coming back. And “Cars 2” is that movie.

Yep.  That about sums up the Pixar oevre, “Cars” notwithstanding.  These are movies that make you feel something.  I mean, they are absolutely heavy with real emotions.  And not the typical, sappy, Hollywood-style formulaic attempts at substituting-good-looking-actors/actresses-on-screen-for-emotion.  Pixar stuff is real, it’s raw, and it hits you right in that pulpy little organ where you keep your real emotions.

That’s why Pixar movies work, and that’s what makes them so good.  And as for me, I like a movie – or a book, for that matter – that can make me feel something, authentically.

And that’s all I wanted to say about that.  Carry on.

The Conquest of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

So, a comment on my rather vigorous (or at least wordy) defense of fantasy, last week, prompted me to explore a hunch and dig up some box-office numbers, as an example of the triumph of Speculative Fiction, in general, and the Fantasy genre, in particular, in mainstream pop culture.  I thought I’d share the results of my “research” here.

The raw data I found at the website Box Office Mojo, which maintains an extensive database of box office receipts.  Specifically, I looked at the Overall Worldwide Box Office and the Overall Adjusted for Inflation Box Office.  (Actually, I got my original “Overall Worldwide” numbers from IMDB.com, which got them from Box Office Mojo, but there’s a slight discrepancy in their figures.)

I divided movies into several categories.  These categories are:

Mainstream: A Catch-all category for comedies, thrillers, dramas, documentaries, musicals, and other films set in a contemporary world, or the real-world, with no real “speculative elements”, most notably “Titanic”, “Gone with the Wind”, etc.

Science Fiction: Anything to do with aliens, spaceships, or futuristic science – basically anything you’d normally classify as Science Fiction, with the exception of “Star Wars” (which I classified separately below).

Fantasy: Any “pure”-bread fantasy, including animated films (like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) that include fantasy-based elements such as magic, dragons, and other mythical creatures or anything set in a mythological setting.

Sci-Fantasy: Movies like “Star Wars”, or “Indiana Jones and the Whatever” I classified as Sci-Fantasy, which is kind of a cross-breed of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They may have science-fiction like elements, and they may have fantasy-like elements such as magic (or the “force”) or may rely heavily on mythical structures.

Super-Hero: Movies about super-heroes, whether based on comic books or not, are a special and categorically large sub-group of Sci-Fantasy.

Family Animated: Animated family movies whose only “speculative” premise is that animals or toys can talk to each other, or something similar like that, such as “The Lion King” or “Bambi”, or “Finding Nemo”.  I struggled with whether to categorize “Up” here or not… ultimately I did, but I could easily have classified it elsewhere.  Good Family Animated films are, in my opinion, a type of Speculative Fiction, but others will disagree.

Romantic Fantasy: Because I needed a place to put the “Twilight” sequel, and I wasn’t sure it counted as “Fantasy” per se.  Maybe it does…

Horror: You know, the kind of movie where something (something that usually doesn’t exist) is out to kill you, frequently using horrible Science-fictiony or Fantasy powers to do it.  (This can be considered separate from stalker/slasher pics where the killer is an ordinary human – that’s mainstream.)

Other Speculative: Movies that have a clearly “speculative fiction” premise but which are hard to categorize as any of the other speculative genres – stuff like “The Da Vinci Code”.  It’s still speculative fiction, but what kind, precisely, I’m not sure.

Other: Because I had no idea how to classify “The Passion of the Christ”.

So, you can see the lists of movies by following the link to Box Office Mojo.  What I’ll share here are the results after my classifications.  I had to narrow my field to the top 50 movies, because I didn’t have time to look at any more than that. 

Looking only at raw Box Office, Fantasy comes out the clear winner.  Looking only at the top 25 movies, 12 of them are fantasy movies – nearly half!  And those twelve movies brought in $11 BILLION.  Science Fiction films brought in another $4.5 Billion, and Super Hero and Sci-Fantasy movies another $6 Billion.  In the top 25 movies, there is only ONE mainstream movie, totalling $1.8 Billion, and that was “Titanic”.  At this point, I was curious, so I expanded my search to the top 50 movies.

Of the top 50 movies, 39 are some variety of Speculative Fiction (or, including the Family Animated segment, 46 movies).  Of these, Fantasy movies are still the largest segments, accounting for 17 of the top-50 movies and $15 Billion in box-office receipts.  Science Fiction films are the second-largest category, with 7 films taking $7.3 Billion.  All-told, Speculative Fiction movies of one stripe or another account for $34 Billion, out of about $43 Billion from all of the top-50.  (Again, if you count all Family Animated movies, this comes to $39 out of the $43).

But then, I grew concerned (me being an MBA and all) that these numbers weren’t a fair comparison, since yesterday’s movie ticket (and yesterday’s dollar) were worth less in straight dollar terms.  So I turned to the inflation-adjusted figures for the top-50 movies.  Here, we see a very different picture, on two fronts.   The first difference we see is that the largest category shifts from Fantasy to Mainstream movies, with 18 mainstream movies making up $12.8 Billion out of $35 Billion for the top-50 (with “Gone with the Wind” displacing “Avatar” as the top movie, “Avatar” dropping to #14, and “Star Wars” rising as the highest-grossing speculative fiction movie).  Sci-Fantasy becomes the largest speculative fiction category (driven by the Star Wars flicks), followed by Science Fiction movies and then Fantasy movies.  Fantasy is the fourth-largest overall category in inflation-adjusted terms.  However, we still find, even in this examination, that Speculative Fiction movies make up the largest segment of the biggest box-office earners, for 27 of the 50 movies (or 32 of them, counting the Family Animated group).

Another interesting point leaps out at us as well, in these two examinations.  Looking at the unadjusted numbers, we see movie after movie made from 1999 and into the 2000s.  In fact, the oldest movie on this list is “Star Wars”, released in 1977.  From there, we leap to 1982 with “E.T.”, then “Jurassic Park” in ’93, “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump” in ’94.  We see a small cluster there in the latter-half of the 90s.  But 40 of the top-50 in this list were released in the 2000s.  This comes as no surprise (because movie ticket prices were higher in the 2000s than before).  But we see that nearly all of the top movies in this past decade have been some variety of Speculative Fiction (leaning heavily toward Fantasy).

But if we look at the inflation-adjusted figures, the oldest movie is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (a Fantasy, FWIW) from 1937, followed by “Gone with the Wind” from 1939.  What’s interesting is that in this list is that we see a cluster of big movies in the 1960s and 1970s, with big box-office movies declining slowly since then.

There’s an interesting trend buried under the surface here.  First, it looks like the Baby Boom generation loved movies ever-so-slightly more than the current generation.  But they didn’t love Speculative Fiction movies quite as much as modern movie-goers.  If you’re making a movie today, however, your best bet is to make a Fantasy movie, or a movie in one of the other Speculative Fiction genres.  Because over time, movie-goer preferences have shifted away from Mainstream movies and toward Speculative Fiction (and Fantasy in particular) in a big way.

At first, when I looked at the Inflation-adjusted numbers, I thought it was a pretty significant counter-argument to my hypothesis that we nerds (i.e. the fans and consumers of speculative fiction) had won the “Culture Wars”.  But when I considered this trend, I realized my hypothesis was still evidently true.  The mainstream of the 1960s and 70s was mostly what it was: the mainstream.  But the mainstream of the 90s and 2000s is a new and different beast.

[Disclaimer: My figures were updated as of May 20, 2010]

I Have Seen the Avatar

Yes, this weekend past, my wife and I finally went to see “Avatar“.  It did not take us so long for lack of any desire to see it (at least, not on my part) but from sheer lack of time.  Between me working on my MBA, my wife staying busy with various activities, and both of us scrambling to get ready for our baby, there’s just not much “let’s-go-out-and-see-a-movie” time.

So, while I’m clearly a little late to the game (and that will be a recurring theme around these parts), I wanted to offer my “review” of the film.  Since by now, if you wanted to see it you’ve more than likely already seen it (unless you’re like me), this isn’t a review slanted toward what was good or bad, per se, but an analysis of the movie from a writer’s perspective.

First, the easy part: this movie is gorgeous.  The 3-D effect is seamless and realistic (not gimmicky feeling like the laughably bad looking “Piranha 3-D” trailer that accompanies the movie which, by the way, is a remake of a bad 1978 flick the 1981 sequel of which, ironically, was directed by James Cameron).  About ten minutes into the movie, my wife leaned over to me and whispered “Wow, this is cooler than I was expecting”.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you long to live in a world filled with 1,500-foot-tall trees and floating islands in the sky (neither idea James-Cameron-originals, but not made any less cool by their inclusion in the movie; rather, it was about time somebody made a movie with giant trees and floating islands).

I suspect, though, that my wife wasn’t expecting much precisely because the plot synopsis I gave her of the movie was so uninspired sounding.  Indeed, the movie has been called, in private circles, “Dances with Smurfs” (my personal favorite) and “Bluecahontas“.  It’s been compared to “FernGully” and, get this, “The Ant Bully“.  They all, of course, are right.  And when you get past the criticisms of the obviously derivative nature of the plot, you run into criticisms that ask whether the film is racist, another in a long line of “white-man’s-guilt-fantasies“.  And it’s certainly possible to see those dark undertones if you look for them.  On the other hand, it’s got a slap-you-in-the-face pro-environmentalism, anti-corporate message.  And yet, whatever all that means to you, it garnered a fairly impressive 9 Academy Nominations, including Best Picture (nevermind that, objectively, it has little chance of winning the top two spots).  Clearly, somebody thinks it’s a really great movie, controversy aside, and not just because it’s a pretty movie.

Is there a disconnect here? 

Having seen it, I don’t think so.  In the moment of the movie, all the criticism of the film only comes to mind if you’re looking for it.  The plot may be rehashed, but the comparisons only occur to you after the fact.  In the heat of the movie, the thought that occurs to you, instead, is “I know the good guys (the Na’Vi, Jake Sully, et al.) have to win this thing, because the good guys always win, but I’ll-be-damned if I know how they’re going to pull that rabbit out of their hat!”  Over the course of the film, you grow to love and care about the Native American analog that are the Na’Vi. 

This is so in part because the movie is so visually impressive.  But there is another factor at work here, a factor that is of paramount importance, especially in science fiction and fantasy films.  This was brought to my attention by one of the “Daily Kicks” by writer David Farland.  In this particular edition, he talked about “Avatar’s Power of Iconism‏”, by which, really, he means the power of “symbolism”.  Avatar is rife with symbolic motifs and those symbols, whether we are consciously aware of them or not, have meaning.  The Na’vi, Farland argues,

…Look basically human, in order to convey emotion. Of course, the eyes are the “window to the soul,” and so he made them larger than human eyes. Noses are unnecessary for iconic characters, and so the noses were nearly eradicated. In short, his aliens here were easily identifiable as humans to children.” 

And it’s hard to argue with that.  Would the story have resonated if the aliens were eight-legged, slug-like gastropods with eye-stalks?  Would we be having arguments about racism?  The human-like (and Native American-like) qualities of the aliens are symbolically meaningful to us.  Farland continues:

But humans also favor certain colors. When asked why he made his aliens blue, Cameron said that it was because ‘green had already been taken in all of those old Martian movies.’ But the truth is that blue is better. Seventy percent of all people will name it as their ‘favorite’ color, and Cameron needed to get the audience to accept his aliens as the good guys right out the gate.”

Farland continues, linking the Na’Vi “Great Tree” with mythical trees of symbolic importance: the “World Tree” of Norse Myth, the Judeo-Christian “Tree of Life“, and various other “Tree of Life” motifs from across many mythologies.  Trees are ancient, important symbols of life and of goodness.

In short, other than visually impressive 3-D vistas, “Avatar” doesn’t really reveal much that’s new to us, but that’s not necessarily the point.  What’s been employed here (effectively, if the box office haul is any indicator) is the same thing that’s employed in block-buster fantasy and science fiction novels: symbolic and mythological motifs that have powerful meaning and tap into our collective unconscious.  Would it have been better if the plotting and writing had been more original (while still employing those symbolic and mythic motifs)?  If it had offered some new twist on the basic premise of the movie?  I imagine the answer is yes.  But it succeeds, in part, because even without offering something new, it does what it does in part by using symbols in a way that requires a certain skill and finesse (and in part by having awesome 3-D CG).  We writers would do well to learn some of those skills as well (the ones about using symbols, not 3-D; it’s hard to use 3-D in any books other than pop-ups).

Happy Writing.