A celebration of the fantasy films that might have failed to win over the critics, but still are a whole lot of fun.
Disclaimer: this isn’t an article taking a pop at any films. Quite the opposite. It’s a salute to the fantasy films that are sometimes written off.
As Alden Ehrenrich once proclaimed at the beginning of Beautiful Creatures (2013): it always starts the same way.
There’s a voiceover as a camera pans over distant lands or brooding hidden worlds within cities. The narrator, often regal British (though Ehrenrich’s aforementioned head-spinning Southern drawl is certainly an exception) gives us a lot of exposition. A lot of exposition.
For how else, intrepid watcher, are you to know about magic and danger and villains and monsters?
So listen well all who enter. Grab as much backstory as possible. Listen intently to the stories as the score swells dramatically. For you are about to enter the world of the two-star fantasy film.
What do I mean by two-star fantasy films? For starters, this is definitely not the award-wining and celebrated movies of blockbusters such as The Lord Of The Rings (2001 – 2003), Stardust (2007), or even the Harry Potter series (2001 – 2011). Nor am I aiming my sights on cult classics such as The Craft (1996) or heck, Hocus Pocus (1993).
Instead this article heralds and lauds a type of movie that is often maligned and derided. Those that get given two stars in the reviews, yet there’s something to them (whether you agree with the reviews or not). It’s feasibly a film that has no astonishing technical fete nor a properly cohesive story-line. A movie where the actors, no matter what calibre they are, play over-the-top characters. Think Colin Firth in Dorian Gray or Emma Thompson in Beautiful Creatures (yes, this is a particular favourite.)
In spite of wobbly reviews and poor box-office, the film industry has a place for movies such as these. Their conception seems to be a modern invention but you could track them back to earlier cinema. In fact, the fantasy film helped propel cinema forward in the first place, thanks to Georges Méliès’s outstanding A Trip to the Moon (1902).
As time went on, fantasy movies such as Sinbad The Sailor or animations such as Alice In Wonderland (1951) were celebrated in the 40s and 50s because they were heroic and adventurous. This continued into the 60s. Whilst they look dated and cheesy now, movies such as Jason And The Argonauts (1963) or Captain Sindbad (1963) are still extraordinary, often thanks to technical fetes from geniuses such as Ray Harryhausen.
Yet dring the 70s, Sean Connery’s red bikini in Zardoz feels like a turn in the tide. The point where things turned towards the movies becoming panned, but conversely a lot of fun too. The 80s became more absurd with Flash Gordon and Xanadu kicking off the decade in 1980. The era would see the likes of Krull (1983) Conan The Barbarian (1984) Masters Of The Universe (1987) and Mannequin (1987).
The 90s seem to have the biggest admiration for the two-star fantasy films. Movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) or the Sandra Bullock led Practical Magic (1998) were panned critically. Yet over time, I look at them favourably for bringing adventure and glee into our hearts. Even Waterworld (1995) has earned a following, no matter how damp the film was regarded by some.
However, arguably, the best eras for the two-star fantasy romp is the 00s. and 2010s. Progress in CGI technology meant that dragons and monsters and ghouls could be created whilst witches could spew out neon spells. It doesn’t have to be great CGI to matter but this computerised technology meant that Rachel Weisz could voice a dragon in Eragon (2006) like Sean Connery did in Dragonheart (1996) Bill Nighy could boom as a giant in Jack The Giant Slayer (2013,) or more recently Eva Green could transform into a bird in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)
Within this subgenre, there are two different types of film I find to invest in: the family friendly, and the aggressively gory.
For example, the former has movies such as the bitey Underworld (2003–2016) and Queen Of The Damned (2002.) Then there’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), where a man literally blows up into chunks within minutes of the movie starting.
The family friendly films are safer but not less pleasing. After all, they’re likely to be inspired by a children’s book series such as Percy Jackson (2007) or Mortal Instruments (2013). Adults can of course enjoy both for their pleasing aesthetics and absolute absurdity.
I would say there are some duds. The Last Airbender (2010), The Covenant (2006), and Sucker Punch (2011) are ones that either take themselves far too seriously or set out to make this type of movie but fall to the wayside. Still, as someone who regularly enjoys The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and King Arthur (2004) who am I to take these movies out of consideration? As The Three Musketeers (2011) proclaim, it’s all for one, and one for all.
Whilst you may sniff your nose at these type of movies, I beg to give them a try because you’ll potentially find yourself having the best film. I know I do. The prime examples of these type of movies are delightfully fun and frivolous. Every time Stuart Townsend croons out a snappy one-liner in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) or Vin Diesel flashbacks to his Viking clad outfits in The Last Witch Hunter (2015), my heart swells with joy.
So what does it take to make a truly astonishing two-star fantasy film? Well, you need a battle with good and evil. You need outlandish costuming and props for setting it in a historical era. You need a villain who swaggers on the screen and says lines in such a manner, your heart will swoon a little. You need memorable battle sequences. You need a hero who is determined to rise above his rank and save the day/love interest/family/honour or all mentioned. You need monsters or magic or mayhem. Sometimes you need a familiar face such as Nighy, or Nicolas Cage, or a dashing actor who has somewhat disappeared now.
Most of all, you need fun and adventure. So sign yourself for the ride of your life and, as a Charles Dance says at the end of Dracula Untold (2014), setting up for a sequel that never happens (a trait shared by many of these movies,) let the games begin…