On Fantasy and Film

George RR Martin lists his Top Ten Fantasy movies. Of course I have thoughts!

First off, a stipulation: lists like this are mainly meant to inspire discussion and debate and, being that this is the Internet, rock-throwing and name-calling and aspersion-casting-upon-one’s-children-and-parentage. OK? OK!

Second: Well, Martin actually has a pretty good list here. You’ll have to click through to see his comments on each film (worth doing, also for the honorable mentions), but here’s the Top Ten by itself:

1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. The Princess Bride
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Ladyhawke
5. Dragonslayer
6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
7. Dark City
8. Pan’s Labyrinth
9. Beauty and the Beast (1946, dir. Cocteau)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Martin’s “honorable mentions” include some Disney movies (more on that below), Dracula, Frankenstein, Legend, Labyrinth, and Excalibur.

So. Discussion!

As noted, Martin generates a pretty decent list. I’ve seen seven of his ten (Dark City, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the 1946 Beauty and the Beast are the ones I’ve missed). I personally quibble a bit with Raiders: even though it has supernatural elements (as do all the Indiana Jones movies), I see them as primarily adventure films rather than fantasies. But that’s quibbling, and the fact remains that if you’ve never seen fantasy on film, watching all of the movies on Martin’s list is a great start. Also, I do not quibble at all with his Number One pick, which is as good as filmed fantasy gets.

Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer? Hmmmm. I like both, but I’m not sure I’d rank them this highly on my Filmed Fantasy Pantheon. In fairness, though, it’s probably twenty-five years since last time I saw Ladyhawke, and not too much shorter than that since my last viewing of Dragonslayer. I remember the latter being a well-made and exciting fantasy, if a bit dour in tone. I owe both a rewatch, though.

My biggest quibble with Martin’s list is that in his latter commentary he notes that for this list he adopted a “No animation” rule:

Going into this, I decided I had better exclude all animated films. Otherwise the list might well have been dominated by Disney’s classic retellings of time-honored fairy tales: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid.

See, the problem here is that animated films are still films and animated fantasy films are still fantasy films. Likewise, there’s no reason to assume that the animated films will dominate the list, or that those animated films that will be doing the dominating are Disney films. A Top Ten list is often going to be exclusionary to the point of absurdity to begin with, but this is particularly bizarre, like making a Top Ten Restaurants of New York City list, but excluding those restaurants that focus on French or Italian cuisine. And in mentioning Disney, Martin makes a telling omission: he omits the masterpieces of Studio Ghibli. Looking at the list above, I would quite willingly trade Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer for Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Then there’s Martin’s dismissal of Willow:

Then there’s Willow. Sorry, no. Yes, I liked Val Kilmer as Mad Martigan, but that’s about it. Willow set filmed fantasy back 20 years.

Look. Taste is taste and if you don’t like a movie, so be it. I don’t think Willow is a classic either, and I wouldn’t put it on my Top Ten Fantasy Movies list either. But yeesh, it ain’t that bad. I genuinely think that Willow has received a bum rap over the years. It’s an OK, fun, swashbuckling Sunday-afternoon-on-a-winters-day movie, and there’s a lot more in it that’s good than Val Kilmer.

And “Willow set back filmed fantasy by 20 years”? That’s a very silly statement to make, and Martin has to know better. Look at all the fantasy movies that came out in the 1990s, within just the first ten years after Willow (which came out in 1988). And just ten years after Willow, The Lord of the Rings was in pre-production. No, Willow did not hurt filmed fantasy. It’s a dumb thing for Martin to have said.

Let’s see, what else? Well, Martin doesn’t mention any of the Harry Potter movies, which seems odd, because they’re giants in the filmed-fantasy world, and they are a highly underrated achievement. They got the same cast together for eight movies over about ten years and told a big story. A little more respect for Potter, please!

And finally, Martin has this to say about Excalibur, which is probably the best version of the King Arthur story filmed yet:

I mentioned Excalibur earlier. There’s much to admire about John Boorman’s film. The visuals are a feast for the eyes, and the movie includes some wonderful performances. But Nigel Terry has to be the least charismatic King Arthur in film history, pouting his way from start to finish, and the film tries to cram in too many different aspects of Arthurian legend, and does justice to none of them. Some studio really needs to step up and film the definitive modern treatment of the Matter of Britain, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. And not as a cartoon (Disney’s The Sword in the Stone) or a musical (Camelot) either. White’s trilogy deserves to be done as three films, the way Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings.

OK. If you use the word “cartoon”, that tells me that you don’t really respect animation. Not really. Maybe the Disney film of Sword in the Stone wasn’t particularly good, but to dismiss the effort entirely makes me think there’s a little more to Martin’s stacking-of-the-deck against animation. As for a musical, well–no, Camelot isn’t great. That’s not why the “definitive” version of the Arthurian story hasn’t been filmed, though.

I think it’s because the Matter of Britain’s very nature is stacked against a film or even a tetralogy of films (The Once and Future King is a gathering of four previous books, not three, as Martin should know). The Arthur story isn’t one story but rather a whole bunch of them clustered together under one banner. I don’t know how one film or even several films could make that all work without significant re-casting of the story and removal of some of its key parts. Gillian Bradshaw’s trilogy of Arthurian novels, perhaps, or Mary Stewart’s wonderful trilogy of Merlin novels. Any telling of the Arthurian story is going to leave something behind, because it can’t possibly all be squeezed in there. I doubt very much if we’ll ever see a massive filmed trilogy of the King Arthur story, to be honest. That’s a bummer, but I think that’s the way it is.

So, what would be my Top Ten Fantasy Films list? Well….

1. The Lord of the Rings (complete)
2. Princess Mononoke
3. The Princess Bride
4. Conan the Barbarian
5. The Thief of Baghdad
6. Time Bandits
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
9. Excalibur
10. Monty Python and the Holy Grail

How about yours?

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One Response to On Fantasy and Film

  1. Lynn says:

    I like your list much better than Martin's.

    Excalibur is one of my all time favorite movies and has almost completely spoiled all other King Arthur movies for me.

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