Dominic Corry 's Opinion

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: Big screen fantasy after Lord of the Rings

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Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings. Photo/supplied
Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings. Photo/supplied

Upon The Return of the King sweeping the Oscars in 2004, Peter Jackson thanked the Academy for "seeing past the trolls and the wizards and the hobbits" to recognise fantasy, which he famously referred to as "an F-word that hopefully the five-second delay won't do anything with."

It was a moment that symbolised the universal embracing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an unprecedented combination of ambitious storytelling and large scale cinema that met with commerical and critical success. It seemed to herald a new era in blockbuster fantasy - but just how influential was it really?

With it being Hobbit week and all, I thought it was a good time to look at the high (and low) points of big screen fantasy in the post-Lord of the Rings era.

I would argue the three most influential movies of the past fifteen years are Spider-Man; Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

We can remove Spider-Man and the superhero boom from the discussion for now, but at the beginning, the fates of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises felt more intertwined.

The first entries for each series were released barely a month apart at the end of 2001 and both films featured a bit with a troll. It initially appeared that the huge instantaneous success of the first Harry Potter film might overshadow Fellowship, which opened second.

But once the latter film rolled out, it soon became apparent that there were very different levels of ambition at work in the two enterprises, with Lord of the Rings eventually cementing its position in cinematic history while the Harry Potter series rose to its status as a triumph of branding and broad familial appeal.

The insane success of the latter franchise inspired a wide range of witch and wizard-focused kids entertainment, but its most enduring legacy has been subsequent fan-appeasing adaptations of obsessed-over book series like The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games movies.

But what films can be traced back to what Peter Jackson achieved with the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

The most obvious example is the Chronicles of Narnia series, the first entry for which was released in 2005 and successfully married LOTR-type craftsmanship with the youth appeal of the Harry Potter films. The Narnia movies are watchable enough, and I even kinda enjoyed the recent third film (which wasn't shot in New Zealand like the first two), but they just seem so light weight compared to Jackson's efforts.

The series was abandoned by its studio after the first two films, and although it managed to mount a handsome third effort with another studio, it's looking increasingly unlikely that we we'll see any more films in the series.

It's difficult not to associate the wide success of the first Pirates of the Carribean movie with Lord of the Rings - it was arguably the first film of a comparable scale and tone to be released after Jackson first unveiled his vision of Tolkien's world. Pirates came out just before The Return of the King and was lapped up by an audience primed for classic tales featuring fantasy elements brought to life with cutting-edge technology.

Plus the eye-popping digital character Davy Jones in the first sequel Dead Man's Chest built directly on what Peter Jackson achieved with Gollum in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

But while Pirates director Gore Verbinski is a master visualist of the highest order, the studio making the film (Disney) failed to apply the primary lesson of Lord of the Rings - that it ultimately pays to back a director with genuine passion and a unique vision. That was the biggest gamble of Lord of the Rings, and it paid off better than anybody could imagine.

The second two Pirates movies (not to mention the recent fourth entry) looked impressive (and made a mint, to be fair) but bored audiences to tears. Verbinski had nothing resembling a personal vision for the films, and they creatively suffered for it.

The same could be said perhaps for Mike Newall's 2010 poorly received (though apparently profitable) fantasy epic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The goal was clearly to establish a mythology on the scale of LOTR but oh boy did that movie stink.

The lack of a director with a clear authorial voice also derailed 2007'sThe Golden Compass. Lord of the Rings backers New Line Cinema obviously saw Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series as their next big trilogy and put a whole heap of money into the first film, but it failed to cohere and sequel plans were scrapped.

One of the few post- Lord of the Rings films to offer a unique vision of the fantasy genre is Zack Snyder's 2006 hit 300, although that's technically a historical epic I suppose.

I'd hoped to see a string of these kinds of "personal blockbusters" in the post-LOTR era, but they're few and far between, with only Robert Rodriguez's Sin City and Kerry Conran's underrated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow coming to mind as alternative examples.

I'd love to know what Peter Jackson thinks of the latter film, a hastily dismissed flop which displayed a reverence for the kind of classic cinematic fantasy PJ embraced in his 2005 King Kong remake. Which ruled. I don't care what anybody says.

Most the best post-Lord of the Rings fantasy movies come from the man who for a long time was going to direct The Hobbit - Mexican mega-fanboy Guillermo del Toro. His 2006 masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth betrayed an almost religious reverence for fantasy iconography which was explored with slightly more multiplex-friendly results in 2004's Hellboy and its 2008 sequel.

Although these films don't exactly pick up any specific LOTR threads, it's not hard to see why Jackson initially chose del Toro to drive the Hobbit ship - he's one of the few modern studio filmmakers who displays a similar drive for creatively interesting large-scale storytelling in the classic sense.

There's another filmmaker who at one point in his career could've been lumped in with del Toro and Jackson under this definitition, but he's been far too inconsistent of late: Terry Gilliam. His 2005 fantasy The Brothers Grimm had a mild LOTR meets Monty Python and The Holy Grail vibe to it, but the film was a troubled production from the start and a disaster by the end. Gilliam has since delved back into fantasy of sorts with the same year's Tideland and 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

One bright spot in the post-LOTR world of cinematic fantasy is X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn's 2007 Princess Bride-influenced movie Stardust, starring Claire Danes; Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. It's a little bit all over the place, but there is much fun to be found in the sprightly film, which deserved a wider audience.

Stardust was based on a book by Neil Gaiman, who had previously teamed up with comic book artist Dave McKean for the well-regarded 2005 fantasy MirrorMask.

One of the most successful post-Lord of the Rings fantasy epics is also one of the most disheartening - 2010's Clash of the Titans remake. It's an affront to everything Lord of the Rings stands for - reasonant characters; emotional heft; textured design; creative action and glorious special effects. It's especially depressing considering it's a remake of the last film of one of Peter Jackson's greatest influences, stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.

This year's sequel was even worse.

Another shockingly bad wannabe Lord of the Rings came in the form of 2006's Eragon, based on a book by a home-schooled weirdo who was happy to rip-off George Lucas as much as Tolkien. Even factoring in that it was based on highly derivative source material, it's alarming just how inept the film is.

There have been several lower profile family-friendly fantasy films whose existence can be equally attributed to the Harry Potter effect as to Lord of the Rings: They include the New Zealand-shot Bridge to Terabithia (which was okay, if a little earnest); The Spiderwick Chronicles (wholly forgettable); The Seeker (which did awful things to Susan Cooper's beloved Dark Is Rising books) and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which apparently did enough business to warrant an upcoming sequel despite not being well-regarded by anybody.

The sad truth is, only one subsequent fantasy project has really lived up to the promise of The Lord of the Rings, and it's a TV show. HBO series Game of Thrones wouldn't exist without Lord of the Rings, just as The Sopranos wouldn't have existed without The Godfather or Goodfellas.

The epic series based on George R.R. Martin's series of novels builds on the textured, lived-in quality of Jackson's fantasy world with gripping serialised drama and a sadistic edge. I freaking love it.

But I just wish cinema was doing more to carry on the legacy of Lord of the Rings.

This year's Snow White and The Huntsman borrowed more than a few cues from Peter Jackson, and was a reasonable success, but it was forgettable piffle in the final assessment. I remain a steadfast fan of space fantasy John Carter, but the venomous reaction to that film hasn't helped the fates of any potential similar projects. And now that this news has come to light, we need never mention 2011's Conan The Barbarian again.

Before he committed to the upcoming Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz: The Great and Powerful; director Sam Raimi (whose Evil Dead films were a clear influence on Jackson's early work) considered mounting a large scale adaption of the insanely popular World of Warcraft game. That could've been pretty awesome.

What are your favourite fantasy films? Do you think any have lived up to the promise of Lord of the Rings? Does Shrek count? Comment below!

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

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