Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Series of Genres: Fantasy

We are back to the old regiment. This week I’m going to explore the magical lands set forth by various storytellers throughout history. These lands provide many opportunities to rise as a hero. Riding shotgun through the hero’s journey we, the audience, empathizes with the hero; experiencing the vast unknown world yet to be explored, together. On our journey we may be joined by a company of friends and allies compose of the following: a wise old mentor, a brave warrior, a man of the cloth, or a charismatic scoundrel. Our company of adventures will be tested both physically and mentally on the perilous journey head. If fate is in our favor we will return home unscathed, but as change individuals with inspirational stories of heroism.

For those of you that have been following this blog recently may recognized this anecdote as an adventure, and may be wondering why I’m not talking about fantasy as the title suggest. Let me recall my adventure post where I said “…adventures are usually paired with other genres. Personally, I think adventures pairs nicely with fantasy and sci-fi films.” Most people, including myself, lump fantasy and sci-fi together, because they tend to share themes and motifs. This week I want to focus just on fantasy. So what separates fantasy from sci-fi? The primary thing that separates the two genres is setting. Science Fiction (sci-fi) is rooted in science or scientific theory that usually has an outer space setting where as fantasy is set in an imaginary world, ruled by magic and mythological beast. Those descriptions are not hard definitions of the two genres, but good generalization that both genres usually follow.

Now that you know what basically separates fantasy from sci-fi, let’s delve into some of my favorite stand-alone fantasy films. I’m going to start off with some classics and then move into the modern ear.

First off is one of the first fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is based loosely off the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz follows Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto, as they explore the colorful Land of Oz in an attempt to find a way back to their home in Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (a fairy godmother type character), and the Munchkins (jolly halfling people) instructed Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, were Wizard of Oz resides. This would be their best bet on finding their way back home. On her way she encounters a scarecrow, who want a brain, a tin man, who wants a heart, and a lion, who wants courage. The road isn’t easy because the Wicked Witch of the West, foils their plans by sending her flying monkeys. Dorothy defeat the Wicked Witch and save her friends. Upon returning the Wicked Witch’s broom, The Wizard of Oz “grants” their wishes, in the form of tokens of gratitude. Modern fantasy film uses an exuberant amount of CGI to create their fantasy world, were in 1939 they used color and detailed set piece to distinguish the difference between the dream world (Oz) and reality (Kansas). That level of filmmaking give me great respect of how they did things back then.

The next two films on my list also have that same level of respect because the films were made primarily with puppets. Those two films are The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In the 1980’s, Jim Henson had a crazy idea to make a film with nothing but puppets. His first attempt was The Dark Crystal. The film did decently at the box office, taking home a little over forty million. What would happen if they made a film like The Dark Crystal but bringing in star power? Jim Henson’s next non-Muppet film was just that. Labyrinth brought with it David Bowie and, newcomer, Jennifer Connelly. Even with the star power, Labyrinth tanked at the box office, making less than thirteen million, about half of its budget of twenty-five million. To make matter worse the critic ate the film up saying things like, “it was awful.” Labyrinth didn’t gain its popularity and cult following until its release on home video.

Fast-forward a few years past Labyrinth to the year 1988. A little gem of a film titled Willow, came out that year. This was Ron Howard’s first full length high-fantasy film. The film was written by George Lucas (Star Wars) and screenplay by Bob Dolman. Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) is a humble farmer who stumbles upon a human a baby girl, which he places in his protection. The village is attacked by a hound during Willow’s ceremony to become the apprentice to the village wizard. Willow is then tasked with returning the baby to the humans. On his journey he allies himself with a human swordsman named Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), a sorceress named Fin Raze, and two brownies named Franjean and Rool. This company all join forces to protect this baby, named Elora Danan, from the evil Queen Bavmorda, and her armies lead by her daughter, Sorsha. What I like the most about this film is it light heartiness, and fun spirit.

Throughout the 1990’s there were numerous Sci-fi film, and handful of fantasy films. In the early 90’s, 1991 to be exact, the film Hook was in theaters. Hook stared Robin Williams. The film takes place many years after the original telling of Peter Pan. Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is fairly neglectful father to his children, Jack and Maggie. While visiting their grandmother Wendy in London the two children are kidnaped by a mysterious figure and taken to Neverland. Tinkerbell shows up and tries to convince Peter that he is Peter Pan. He doesn’t believe so Tinkerbell has to forcibly take Peter to Neverland. After seeing his children with Captain Hook, he decided to fight for them by remembering that he is Peter Pan. With the help of the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell, Peter becomes Peter Pan. Peter fights Hook and wins the hearts of his children. The three of them return home and live happily ever after.

In the 2000’s many films were experimenting with visual effect, making many breakthroughs in CGI. One of those major breakthroughs was Motion capture (Mo-cap). Mo-cap allows the visual effects team to capture an actor’s motions / performance and use that as the framework for a CGI character. During this era movies were filming full scenes with nothing but CGI, blanketing sets in green screens. Then came along a Mexican filmmaker named Guillermo del Toro, who become known for using a healthy mix of practical effects and CGI. I believe that the film, El laberinto del fauno ( Pan’s Labyrinth) is the best example of Guillermo del Toro’s style. The film was beautiful, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would back me up on this, awarding the film Oscars in the Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup categories. Apparently, Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t make the mark in the Visual Effect category that year, instead the category was filled with the following films, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Poseidon, and Superman Returns. Taking home the prize was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Pan’s Labyrinth merit, not only lie in its visuals, but in it story as well. Pan’s Labyrinth follows a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her quest to become the rightful princess of the Underworld. To do so Ofeli must complete three tasks given to her by a faun. These tasks lead her into a dark fairy tale world filled with eerie monsters. The reason why I spent the so much time on Guillermo del Toro and Pan’s Labyrinth is because del Toro has a connection to one of the franchise in my top five list.

I don’t need a better segue than that, here is my Top Five Franchise in the Fantasy Genre that you all have been waiting for:

  1. Tolkien Film Franchise
  2. Star Wars Franchise
  3. Harry Potter Franchise
  4. The Chronicles of Narnia Franchise
  5. Shrek Franchise

  • Honorable Mention: The Neverending Story

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films bring Professor Tolkien’s classic novels alive. J. R. R. Tolkien is known for elaborated histories and world building. Tolkien started his work in the early 1930’s with his first tale in Middle-Earth drawing inspiration from many mythologies, including: Finnish, Norse, Greek, and Christianity, among others. What I like most about Tolkin’s work is he gave each race in his stories their own history, culture, and language. He not only does this for the normal fantasy races like dwarves, elves, and men, but for the monstrous races like goblins, trolls, and orcs. This attention to detail can also be seen on screen, in the story and in the craftsmanship. Peter Jackson utilized a native New Zealand special effects and prop company named WETA. One example of their detailed work is the armor they crafted for the film. They hand crafted each piece of armor and weapon in the film, bring aboard blacksmiths and leather-workers. The film also uses quite a bit of CGI, creating creatures such as the Balrog. Some of the CGI creatures, one in particular, came to life via motion capture. Andy Serkis brilliant mo-cap performance brought the creature Gollum to life. The level of acting talent doesn’t stop at Andy Serkis. The cast list in The Lord of the Ring is fantastic: Elijah Wood, Sir Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan. All their hard work didn’t go unnoticed either; The Return of the King alone racked up 11 nominations at the Oscars. Roughly ten years after the release of The Return of the King, Peter Jackson would return to Middle-Earth and produce The Hobbit, with Guillermo del Toro at the helm. Guillermo del Toro left the project because of filming conflicts, passing the reins back to Peter Jackson, but he retained a writing credit for his conurbation to the film. I could talk about the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films all day, but it is time to move on.

Star Wars is seen as Sci-fi because of its setting and its use of scientific looking things like the lightsaber. Personally I would classify the films as a space fantasy. The themes and motifs line up more with fantasy. George Lucas drew inspiration from many different sources, including old war and samurai films. Examining the heart and soul of Star Wars, its story, one will realize that it’s modeled after Joseph Campbell’s theory, the hero's journey. For a better explanation of the hero's journey, check out this diagram. The original trilogy did a lot to advance the technology of visual effect, which spawned a company. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) is one of the large visual effect, if not the largest. ILM has worked on many film over the years, averaging about 8 to 10 films a year. ILM has worked on most of the films I have mention in this post. What I’m try to get across is ILM has been a big part of the visual effects world. Star Wars in general didn’t really see a lot of love from the Academy, except for A New Hope, winning 6 out 10 of their nomination. All three films in the original trilogy won a Special Achievement Award for visual effects. I personally love Star Wars and I can’t wait for The Force Awakens.

Harry Potter hold a special place in my heart. I read all the books. I was one of those Potter nerds that stood in line for hours on end waiting for my copy of the newest book. I repeated that process for every movie once they started making them into films, except for the years I work at a movie theater. Harry Potter is a coming of age story with magic. Harry goes from being a “normal” boy to a great wizard powerful enough to take down the big bad wizard named Voldemort. In the Harry Potter world, magic is real, but its usage has been hidden from us Muggles, those lacking in magical abilities. Harry Potter’s only picking up Academy Award nominations in many of the artsy categories like Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Costume, but where it lacks in prestigious awards it make up in finances. The Harry Potter franchise has made just under 8 billion dollars worldwide, placing it in the top three most successful film franchise, financially.

The Chronicles of Narnia is another special childhood / teenage memory for me. The Chronicles of Narnia was the first time I was exposed to a fantasy world. In the books and later in the films, the audience follows a group of children as the journey to the Land of Narnia. This land can only be entered by magical means, the first of which was through a magical wardrobe. The first time I watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe I was impressed with how they handled the Christian undertones that C.S. Lewis wrote in his books.

Sherk is one of those animated films that works for both children and adults. I personally thought Sherk was clever and fun, but then it turns bad, with all its sequels and spin-offs. Shrek is produced by DreamWorks Animation. I jokingly say DreamWorks Animation put out one good film for every ten films. Form my personal tastes, that statement is kind of true. From that production company I enjoyed: Sherk, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon. There maybe a few more that I liked, but not love. I’m a Pixar guy through and through. I haven’t really seen a bad Pixar film, well in my opinion. With that being said I’m excited for Pixar’s newest movie Inside Out.

Now for my Honorable Mention: The Neverending Story. I haven’t had an honorable mention before because the race wasn’t as close as it was this week. Sherk barley made it in my top five because I didn’t like its sequels and spin-offs. The Neverending Story is based off a novel with the same name written by Michael Ende. The Neverending Story brings out the same love I have for the other fantasy films from the 80’s. I like how the story comes to life as the boy reads the words. It’s just one of those films I have a special place for, even though it’s not the greatest films cinematically.

This post should be going up on Christmas Eve, so I would like to wish my readers a Happy Holiday. I will end by asking, what films is everyone planning on watching this Holiday season? Maybe, Into the Woods, would be fitting because it is a fantasy film opening on Christmas Day.

No comments: