Walt Disney was ‘The Showman of the World’, the king of family entertainment whose visionary genius continues to touch the lives of countless millions to this day. In a career spanning almost half a century Disney succeeded thanks to a rock-like faith in his own fantastic imagination. To this he added a single-minded determination that only the best was good enough: “They know they’re going to get a certain quality, a certain kind of entertainment… That’s what Disney is,” was his boast. It was a boast that went on to win him 48 Academy Awards – more than anyone else in history. Disney was a shy, self-deprecating and insecure man in private, but adopted a warm and outgoing public persona. He had high standards and high expectations of those with whom he worked. Although there have been accusations that he was racist or anti-semitic, they have been contradicted by many who knew him. His reputation changed in the years after his death, from a purveyor of homely patriotic values to a representative of American imperialism. Nevertheless, Disney is considered a cultural icon, particularly in the United States, where the company he co-founded is one of the world’s largest and best-known entertainment companies.
As a lifelong comics fan I can’t help pinching myself at the flood of graphic novel adaptations that we’re being treated to in this current golden age of comic book movies. Quite apart from the Marvel and DC superhero features which are unsurprisingly garnering most of the headlines, there are quite a few adaptations of lesser known properties, both on television and on the silver screen, which their legions of fans might be surprised to know were ever comics in the first place e.g. The Walking Dead, 300, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, Sin City etc. Whilst I love seeing spandex-clad superheroes and villains going at it as much as the next person, it’s particularly gratifying to see that film-makers are also appreciative of the wide range of more eclectic comic books out there and that the lesser known properties are also getting their chance. Of course, there are plenty of excellent graphic novels that haven’t yet been treated to film or TV makeovers, e.g. Sandman, Fables, The Books of Magic, Preacher and The Unwritten, to name just a few, but almost all of the ones that come to mind immediately are either in development or are likely to be adapted at some point in the near future. This may well be because of their links to one of the big two – Marvel and DC – express or otherwise, as much as for any other reason. But there are in my view other comic book publishers out there whose properties are just as worthy of adaptation in my view, and of these the universe of Top Cow appears to have several that appear particularly suited to the big screen.
Hearing about the recent 25th anniversary of the release of The Princess Bride made me think of that most cherished of film sub-genres: the 1980s fantasy flick. Defined by films such as the aforementioned Bride, as well as Willow, Krull, The Neverending Story, Excalibur and Ladyhawke, all of these motion pictures were marked by an anarchic sense of humour, picaresque adventure and often, unfortunately, some truly terrible scripts, acting and dialogue. Quite what prompted this mini-boom in over the top fantasy movies is something of a mystery. Maybe it was a reaction against the in-yer-face realism of 1970s cinema that saw Hollywood fall so insatiably in love with fantasy films in the ’80s. Or maybe it was the optical effects triumphs of the late ’70s sci-fi films that convinced film-makers that they could finally mount stories of this kind convincingly. Whatever the reason, the ’80s was a decade of mythical adventures in thrilling, faraway lands, ruled over by wicked, dark forces. It was a time of callow, would-be warriors setting off on life-changing quests against dastardly enemies and finding love – or at least lust – on the way. Let’s take a magical mystery tour through the era of excess in fantasy films.
It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.
Unlike his contribution to the sic-fi genre, Star Wars, George Lucas’s contribution to fantasy, Willow, has been largely forgotten by the public. Very much a film of its time, Willow appeared in 1988 amid a buzz that may now be difficult to believe. Only five years had passed since the triumphant, money-spinning conclusion to the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones saga was still going strong and it seemed that everything George Lucas touched (barring Howard the Duck) turned to gold. With the notable exception of The Princess Bride, fantasy films had until then seemed to be box-office poison and it was thought that Willow was the film that would change everything – with the aid of that old Lucas magic of course. Lucas had originally conceived the idea for Willow as long ago as 1972, initially as an alternative to adapting The Lord of the Rings for cinema, since he couldn’t, as a then unknown young film-maker, manage to obtain the rights for Tolkien’s magnum opus. The similarity between the two stories is unmistakable, both in terms of the mythical fantasy world in which Willow is set and, in particular, its eponymous hobbit-like hero, the Nelwyn Willow Ufgood (who was played, incidentally, by Warwick Davis, the same actor who starred as one of the furry Ewoks in Return of the Jedi). Unfortunately, the comparison to Tolkien’s work did nothing to help Lucas’s film, which was only a modest commercial success and drew many critical reviews – a number of which came from the audience of fantasy fans at which it had been mainly aimed (foreshadowing the even worse critical response that The Phantom Menace would receive from Star Wars fans a decade later). Willow might have faded into oblivion entirely were it not for two things – ILM’s visual effects sequences, which led to a revolutionary breakthrough with the digital morphing technology that would later appear in films such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day; and the continuation of Willow Ufgood’s story in the novels which make up the Chronicles of the Shadow War. The question that you might, quite rightly, be asking at this stage is, why on earth should I care about a series of books based on a film that was a bit of a box-office flop?
Before the noughties’ rejuvenation of the genre with the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings‘ film franchises, pure fantasy movies were a much maligned species – in many ways the ugly sister of science fiction and graphic novel adaptations. Most of the attempts were aimed purely at children or were so niche as to appeal to no one other than a die-hard audience (Dungeons and Dragons movies, I’m talking about you!). There were of course some shining exceptions to this trend, perhaps the best loved of them being Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride. Based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman (who also wrote the movie screenplay, thus ensuring its faithfulness to his original text) the film was heralded as a cult classic almost as soon as it was released. Full of wit, picaresque adventure, action, romance and magic, this was not your typical fantasy film. This is what has perhaps ensured its longevity and even today it regularly comes near the top of lists of romance and comedy as well as fantasy films.