Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published February 18th 2020
Some things were definitely better in the 80s
I am currently a university student, aiming for my third degree, and in one of my subjects last week came up the topic of fantasy films. Great – I love fantasy films. But… over half the people doing this course were either not born or were not yet teenagers when the first of Peter Jackson's acclaimed Lord Of The Rings films was released (2001, for those playing at home).
Yet again, I felt like the old guy at the table. So, when I put forth my own favourite fantasy films, this group had not heard of most of them or had only heard of the remakes/reboots. And thus the idea for this column was born.
As I may have mentioned once or twice, I was a teenager in the 1980s. And I saw a lot of movies, as was the way of the young back then. My favourite films have always been an eclectic mix of genre, but fantasy is certainly one I used to love. Unfortunately, it has been a while since I have seen a decent fantasy film. They are either remakes of much better originals, are more enamoured with their special effects than their story, or veer too closely to the horror and/or science fiction tropes to be truly fantasy. And so it is with rose-coloured glasses that I look back at my favourite fantasy films from the 1980s. (Order is chronological, and for what it's worth, I did struggle to cull this list to just 10.)
Clash Of The Titans (1981)
Yes, this film has appeared before in one of these lists, but that does not matter. The remake is singularly terrible, showing that bad CGI is nothing compared to excellent stop-motion. The story of Perseus is mixed with a few other myths, plus a dash of Norse mythology for good measure, and that's what makes it such a good fantasy film – it is just a film with all these fantastic elements thrown in for an entertaining whole. As I said last time, the actors (with the exception of Burgess Meredith) take it a little too seriously, but it is a fun ride and a really good film nonetheless.
Time Bandits (1981)
From Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, this film is a strange ride through history featuring a virtual who's who of British acting talent at the time. They meet figures from history and legend and… look, the narrative, as normal for a Gilliam film, is convoluted and complicated and I could not even begin to do it justice by trying to explain the dwarves, the map, the Supreme Being, Evil and the deadly toaster oven. It's fun, funny at times, has darker moments, but this is fantasy right on the outer edge of the fantastical. What a bizarre film, but a fun watch.
I read the book of the film before seeing the film, which I then hired it on video in the later 80s. While not the greatest film, the special effects of the dragon, especially for the time, are magnificent, and the whole adventure just does not let up. The dragon – with the cool name "Vermithrax Pejorative" – and its young kill a princess, there is a wizard who sacrifices himself for the greater good, the dragonslayer does not get the glory, but does get a girl, and the whole thing is simply not what you would expect from the Disney corporation. All but forgotten today, this is worth tracking down.
Another film I've already talked about, this is one of my top three favourite films ever. It's got magic, swords, battles, mysticism, kings, knights, heroes, bad guys – the things every fantasy film needs to make it a good fantasy film. The story of Arthur from conception to death, including old favourites like Merlin, Morgana, Lancelot and Guinevere, this is just a rolling adventure tale, and it makes pretty clear that the Arthur myth was probably closely related to the seasons, thus making it a standard myth cycle. But it is not standard – it is brilliant.
Conan The Barbarian (1982)
By the time this film came out, I had already discovered the work of Robert E. Howard. I will admit my first introduction to Conan was through the comics, but that made me seek out the books, and then the film was released… and I couldn't go see it because I was too young, so I had to wait for the chance to hire the video (I now own the DVD). Unlike nearly every fantasy film, this one has religion as a central component, and that is important because the real human worlds upon which fantasy worlds tend to be based were dominated by their religions. But it has huge warriors, magnificent swords, magic, warrior-women, mysticism, snakes, death, gladiators… come on, what more do you want? Plus – Arnold Schwarzenegger! This is a little dark, and it does take itself maybe too seriously at times (mind you, so does the source material), but this is one of the best examples of the sword and sorcery films made.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
The story is a little slight, but the visual effects of what is essentially a fantasy muppet movie are brilliant. As I mentioned talking about Clash Of The Titans, CGI is not the be-all and end-all, and this film demonstrates that in spades. Not a human to be seen, just some amazing creatures on the screen. The Gelflings were cool, the Skeksis malevolent, and the assortment of creations is just a fertile imagination put on the screen in all its glory. One of Jim Henson's crowning moments… and he's had a few! A film for all ages, I reckon. When I saw this at the cinema (I was 11 years old), I was stunned and wrote what could well have been the first fan fiction I ever wrote. It is so good.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Okay, yes, this is more a children's film, but there is no denying the fantasy elements of it, with strange creatures, a Big Bad, a princess and magic everywhere. Oh, and it's got a dragon. It is one of those kid films that adults don't mind watching… and, honestly, who didn't feel at least a little lump in the throat when the horse fell into the quicksand? And who didn't have at least a slight smile when he rode the Luck Dragon through his own real world? A fun fantasy for kids of all ages. And here's the Limahl title track!
Michelle Pfeiffer, Rutger Hauer, and Matthew Broderick are absolutely wonderful in this story of a pair of lovers destined to never be together – by night he becomes a wolf and during the day she is a hawk. The magic is not overdone, and it is the love story at the core of the film that carries it along so magnificently. Unlike too many fantasy tales, the characters are central to this story, not the fantasy itself, and I think that's why it stands out. Some may find it a little slow in parts, but I really enjoy it.
Featuring David Bowie as the Goblin King, this fantasy is at turns magical and dark, and is another from the fertile mind of Jim Henson. After her brother is taken, Sarah has to rescue him from the Goblin King, and the story is pretty much a straight-forward rescue mission, But this is Henson, and so the visuals – especially the Escher-like room near the end – are stunning and bring this film above and beyond the normal and mundane.
The Princess Bride (1987)
My favourite film of 1987, bar none, is more a fairy tale, but it's a story with princesses, pirates, giants, duels and everything else a good fantasy adventure needs. As I said last time I talked about this film, Robin Wright is the best fantasy princess to ever grace the screen, and Cary Elwes is an awesome hero. Plus, it's got Andre the Giant in it. The whole thing is so well put together, so well written, and the characters are not simply two-dimensional creations to hang the story on. You would be hard-pressed to find a fantasy film that is as good as this from any era.
Fantasy films may have changed and evolved since the 1980s. The Lord Of the Rings series was amazing; the Hobbit series dragged. The Harry Potter films were not as good as the books (with the possible exception of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort; I have now seen them thanks to some encouragement from my readers here at Weekend Notes). No other fantasy film released in the twenty-first century has done much for me, to be honest. So I will stick with these films from my teenage years. And if my kids and some of their friends are anything to go by, these films might just be good for the younger generation today as well. You know, good acting, decent writing, good characterisation, fun special effects – everything missing from too many modern movies.