The Decade of Fantasy

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 21, 2005

In the mid-to-late 90s I sold suits for a living.  I had a co-worker named Steve.  Steve was in his late 40s.  Steve’s great passion was film.  Steve and I would spend hours talking about film.  Once we had a coversation that sounded something like this:

"No, seriously Steve," I said.  "Now that the computer animation is sophisticated enough, I’ll bet there will be a revival of fantasy films.  It’s just a matter of time."

"It isn’t gonna happen, Mark," Steve replied.  "It is just too difficult to do fantasy in film, and there isn’t a large enough audience to pay the high prices required for the film to break even."

Steve’s perspective sounds quite silly to us today, but before the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Shrek (which all came out in 2001) graced the silver screen, his prediction may have been pretty reasonable. 

Certainly, the advancement of computer generated images has been a key factor in the recent onslaught of fantasy films.  But I think there is more to it than that. 

Of the top 20 movies between 2000 and 2005, 8 are fantasy:

Return of the King (2003)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Two Towers (2002)
Shrek 2 (2004)
Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Finding Nemo (2003)
Star Wars Episode III (2005)
Spiderman (2002)
Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Spiderman 2 (2004)
Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)
Star Wars Episode II (2002)
Incredibles (2004)
Passion of the Christ (2004)
War of the Worlds (2005)
Mission Impossible 2 (2000)
Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Monster’s Inc. (2001)

Other films, like Star Wars 2-3, Spiderman 1-2, the Incredibles, Matrix
2, and Monster’s Inc. might be considered fantasy by some.  Consider
this with the top 20 films of the 90s:

Titanic (1997)
Star Wars Episode 1 (1999)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Independence Day (1996)
The Lion King (1994)
Forest Gump (1994)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Lost World (1997)
Armaggeddon (1998)
T2 (1991)
Ghost (1990)
Aladdin (1992)
Twister (1996)
Toy Story 2 (1999)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Home Alone (1990)
Pretty Woman (1990)
The Matrix (1999)
Mission Impossible (1996)
Tarzan (1999)

A majority of the top 20 movies of the past five years are fantasy or
close-to-fantasy.  If 2000-2005 have been largely dominated by fantasy
films, the second have is likely to be even MORE dominated by fantasy. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is
currently in theatres and is likely to jump to the top 10 box office
hits list, and there are three more films to come.  Next month, the
first of potentially 7 of the Narnia movies comes out.  Peter Jackson
is also working on bringing us the Hobbit within the next few years.

What does the current popularity of fantasy films tell us about our society?

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7 Responses to “The Decade of Fantasy”

  1. Van S on November 21st, 2005 10:29 pm

    Just to tip my hand a bit, let me suggest that one of the appeals of fantasy is its openness to mystery. Fantasy provides the ultimate escape. In contrast, science fiction is usually bound by the laws which govern our universe and extrapolate a future reality within our own universe (with the exception of Star Wars, which is based in the distant past). In other words, science fiction attempt to be based in the possible, whereas fantasy escapes the confines of what is possible.

    It would seem then, that our current fascination with fantasy may indicate either a desire to escape reality or to challenge the dominant interpretation of reality.

  2. Michael Rew on November 21st, 2005 11:48 pm

    I don’t consider comedic fantasies, such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Princess Bride,” to be pure fantasy, although I liked both, and “Harry Potter” seems too modernistic. The last fantasy movie I remember seeing that had an original story was “Willow,” since “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” are retreads, even if adeptly executed.

  3. Van S on November 22nd, 2005 12:00 am

    I’d agree about “Pirates” not being pure fantasy, and it is true that Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. are retreads. However, fantasy has tended to fill a somewhat narrow niche in our culture. In the past five years in particular, however, fantasy has grown much wider in appeal.

  4. Neal Taylor on November 22nd, 2005 5:01 am

    The Lord of the Rings retreads? C’mon! You cannot compare the Ralph Bakshi (not sure if the spelling is right) animated “thing” to the remarkable films Pete Jackson and crew spun for us!
    To add to the discussion I think a definition of “Fantasy” is needed - after all anything that is fictional is fantasy - that of the imagination. And while the genre of fantasy is yes, wizards elves etc, that is even being pushed by authors such as Raymond Fiest to include science fictional type stories of beings from another world!
    Just my two bits worth! Great topic !

  5. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad on November 22nd, 2005 6:05 am

    Star Wars “Force” is hi-tek looking magic — Star Wars is fantasy MUCH more than Sci-Fi.

    FTL travel in a spaceship is little different than with a magic port-key.

    Fantasy allows character exagerations to be accepted as “normal”, so that more normal emotional pressures become more stressed. We reader/ watchers can usually identify with the characters.

    Plus, “good” vs. “evil” can be more starkly portrayed, with less feelings of unreality.

  6. Michael Rew on November 22nd, 2005 9:37 am

    When I call “Lord of the Rings” a retread, what I mean generally is that, say, in twenty to thirty years, there will be another “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Both “Lord of the Rings” and “Narnia” have been produced before. These are stories which movie producers can film (and animate) every generation. Homer and King Arthur, for example, are done over and over again.

    If I had to guess at Steve’s prognosis of fantasy film, I would guess he would mean it is too difficult to film original stories set in distant lands of long ago with dragons, fairies, elves, gnomes, dwarves, trolls, knights, princesses, wizards, and other elements of what has been historically considered fantasy. And I think he is right.

  7. Neal Taylor on November 22nd, 2005 6:43 pm

    Two of my favorite films are originals - The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth - both Jim Henson films!
    I think that if you searched you will find that there has only been one attempt to film LOTR and that it will be decades before it is even allowed to be made again. Tolkien’s estate and the Producers have very tight reigns!

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