Someday, there will be a cultural study that reveals why there was a renewed fascination with dragons and chicks in chainmail in the '80s. I have always suspected it was the debut of Dungeons and Dragons, but an RPG played in basements could hardly inspire Hollywood to tackle the genre so eagerly. Perhaps it was the medieval styling of Star Wars, which led movie directors to declare "Jedi knights? Hey, let's do a movie with real knights!" Maybe it was all spawned by the gigantic Excalibur, or it was a delayed reaction to the hippies' rediscovery of Tolkien.
Whatever the reason, it was a glorious time for the fantasy genre, as deliciously geeky as most things in the '80s were. (The reason we have Internet fandom is the '80s -- search in your nerd hearts, you know it to be true.) There was Conan the Barbarian, Legend, Willow, The Princess Bride, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and Ladyhawke. They starred up-and-comers like Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise, and were directed by the likes of Richard Donner and Ridley Scott.
Barring a few dated missteps, like techno music and the glittery make-up of David Bowie, most of them have aged well. Ladyhawke is still a particular favorite of mine, as I think it has the simplicity of a real medieval tale. I secretly want it to be remade, so they could use CGI for the hawk and wolf transformations, but there is no one who can touch the ethereal loveliness of Michelle Pfeiffer, so perhaps it's best left alone.
After the enormous success of Lord of the Rings, I really hoped we would see a return to those days, a rebirth of fantasy movies. Those '80s efforts pale in comparison to the LOTR trilogy, obviously, but I genuinely hoped that a new generation of directors would cut their teeth on swords and sorcery the way Scott and Donner had. If decent movies had come out of cheesy '80s budgets, than imagine what would arise if the industry took the genre seriously. For awhile, it seemed things might be going that way, what with the Chronicles of Narnia being green-lit, and Harry Potter raking in the millions alongside the One Ring. Anything vaguely medieval was being shoved into production – Tristan and Isolde, King Arthur, Eragon, Beowulf, The Golden Compass, Stardust, etc.
The output was there, I believe the audience was there, but something was missing. A feeling of satisfaction, perhaps, or momentum. It always felt like we were waiting to be swept away. But few, if any, of the medieval/fantasy outings approached the level of The Princess Bride, let alone LOTR. In the end, it fell to The Golden Compass and Narnia to keep the genre afloat – and the results have been less than spectacular. In the case of Compass, the failure was downright spectacular critically, financially, and artistically. And based on the box office numbers for Prince Caspian and rumors from Disney, Narnia may be on its way out.
I could forgive thin emotional content if we had gotten a few fantasy flicks that were purely bad-ass. There was a maniacal bent to the films of the '80s. Remember the infamous Conan the Barbarian dialogue? Both Legend and Excalibur are downright trippy -- possibly because I have always watched them too late at night. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was just the glee of playing with a baby genre, but the results were memorable, if nothing else. Sadly, there was never even a return even to that gloriously pulpy side of the genre. I admit it, there's a side of me that wanted to see at least one modern movie with men and women in scanty, Red Sonya style chainmail. Shameful, I know, but there it is.
Regardless of which ones you loved, liked, or hated, it looks like fantasy films are on the way back out -- at least until 2010 when The Hobbit is released. The half-hearted renaissance will come full circle, and undoubtedly there will be an attempt by several studios to cash in on "that Tolkien thing." It's fitting, really, since Tolkien invented the whole genre to begin with. While I know there are many good fantasy stories out there worth telling (particularly the medieval originals Tolkein himself loved, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I will wish fervently to see anything from The Book of Lost Tales. Perhaps the digging around in appendices for a Hobbit sequel will inspire Peter Jackson & Co to tackle Beren and Luthien, or The Children of Hurin. But as to hoping for to see those or any other story I cherish ... Onen i-Estel Edain, u-chebin estel anim.
(I apologize for that last paragraph. There is just no excuse for that level of nerdery.)