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Mary Robinette Kowal’s Guide to the Real Classics of Fantasy

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There’s this progression where someone comes up with a new idea, and then someone else copies it until it becomes cliché, and then it becomes a trope and then a genre. Today we’re looking at the fantasy movies that started it all — the ones whose ideas were so groundbreaking they spawned the atmosphere that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings would come to dominate. A word of warning: If you watch some of these today you’ll think they are cliched — but just remember who invented it.

The Thief of Baghdad (1924)
Thief-Baghdad-125.jpgThis is arguably the very first fantasy feature. The second title card in the classic silent says, “Verily the works of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day…” How true! The movie’s cutting edge special effects, casts of thousands, and story with a sweeping epic sprawl made audiences fall in love with the genre. Thief of Baghdad spawned two remakes and, in many ways, Raiders of the Lost Ark is its descendant — the story of a clever thief fighting the forces of evil.

King Kong (1933)
King-Kong-125.jpgThe 50-foot ape is so iconic, it’s hard to picture the Empire State Building without him. This landmark movie introduced the world to the idea of giant monster flicks, but more specifically, giant monsters wreaking havoc on New York City. You can see its descendants in everything from Ghostbusters to Cloverfield, and its enduring influence on today’s fantasy directors. (There’s a reason Peter Jackson went straight from Lord of the Rings to a Kong remake.)


Lost Horizon (1937)
There were stories before this that spoke of hidden paradises, but this adaptation of James Hilton’s novel spawned a trope of beautiful, idyllic locales where time stops for the inhabitants. The name of said locale, Shangri-La, has become part of our everyday vocabulary here in the real world, and you can still see elements of the movie in modern fantasies like Tuck Everlasting.


Snow White (1937)
This broke the ground for fantasy in many different ways. It was the first feature length animated movie; it was in color; and most importantly, it was the first movie adapted from a children’s fairy tale. The phenomenal success it enjoyed spawned immediate copycats like, oh, say, The Wizard of Oz, and the trend still continues to this day: Harry Potter owes its screen life to Snow White, as does this month’s Where the Wild Things Are.


Beauty and Beast (1946)
Director Jean Cocteau redefined fantasy in 1946 by introducing naturalism to the vocabulary. Beauty’s home life is noisy and chaotic, so when she enters the world of the Beast, the silence and order makes the magic a stark contrast. The candelabra that lights itself, the eyes in the mantle — all of these are such fantasy standards we forget there was a time when they were totally new.


Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
If you don’t know the work of Ray Harryhausen, you aren’t paying enough attention to fantasy. Stop motion might have been around before Harryhausen, but he took it to new levels every time he worked. Take a look at the skeleton fight sequence here — three actors battle seven stop-motion skeletons. Pirates of the Caribbean? Feh. It’s been done before. And today you can see its influence in the work of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg to Tim Burton.


Excalibur (1981)
Sure, other movies tackled the Arthur legend before, but this take on the Camelot myth sets the visual bar for every sword and sorcery flick that followed. Filmed largely on actual locations, the movie combines a grittiness with romantic beauty that the producers of King Arthur would try to emulate in 2004. Interesting footnote: Excalibur‘s director John Boorman had wanted to adapt Lord of the Rings, but couldn’t get the rights.


The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jim Henson’s team created ground-breaking animatronics for this all-puppet motion picture. Considerably darker than the fantasy flicks leading up to it — and certainly more so than the Muppets — the movie actually confused U.S. audiences who expected puppets to be suitable for children. There really hasn’t been anything like The Dark Crystal to hit the U.S. since, but it was produced recently enough that it’s not really out of the innovation stage.


Highlander (1986)
Sword and sorcery already had a good track record when Highlander came out, and the ’80s had a load of fantasy going on. But using music-video editing techniques brought a very modern sensibility to a story that might have otherwise vanished in the crowd. Director Russell Mulcahy basically reinvented the genre with Highlander by taking a visual aesthetic from a new medium, much as Peter Jackson did by imbuing Lord of the Rings with video game slickness.


Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton has said that this is his most personal work. It certainly brought urban fantasy to the big screen in ways that hadn’t been imagined before (as well as turned Johnny Depp into a veritable fantasy trope unto himself). Again, you’ll find the odd precursors, but this invented a genre of visually stylized fantasy set in a modern world. Today people talk about certain quirky movies, like Coraline, as “Burtonesque.” Now you know why.


Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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