Top Five - Fantasy

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my Top Five Science Fiction movies. Ever since then, I've been compiling in the back of my mind the natural counterpart - the Top Five Fantasy Movies.

Honorable mentions go to a few classics from the '80s - Dragonslayer, which has what is probably the coolest-looking dragon in any fantasy movie ever, Willow, which is a lot of fun in spite of being fairly unoriginal, derivative and committing the hack-director sin of naming villains after movie critics (the Evil Queen's right-hand man is General Kael and the two-headed dragon is called the Eborsisk) and Excalibur, which came very close to making my Top Five and is far-and-away the best cinematic King Arthur story - not that it really has much competition for the title.

5. Conan the Barbarian: It doesn't really live up to the standard set by Robert E. Howard's original "Conan" stories. I'll never understand why they called the villain Thulsa Doom - a name borrowed from one of Howard's "Kull" stories - when he's clearly and obviously Thoth-Amon, a villain from an actual Howard "Conan" story who also made frequent appearances in the "Conan" comics. Even so, this is a terrific movie that does lift some choice bits from Howard's stories, has loads of great action, and is eternally memorable if nothing else for the Governor of California's stated philosophy of what is best in life: "To crush your enemy, to see him driven before you and to hear the lamentations of his women."

4. The Princess Bride: If I have to explain to you what makes this movie great, maybe you should go read another blog. I don't suppose many people think of this one as "fantasy" per se - and it's certainly not epic "high fantasy." It's a lighter, comic fantasy. But it does have shrieking eels, a Fire Swamp populated by Rodents of Unusual Size, a giant who wears a holocaust cloak and, of course, a Miracle Man. It also features the best sword fight put to film since the Golden Age swashbucklers - Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black dueling atop the Cliffs of Insanity - which also happens to be the funniest sword fight this side Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone in The Court Jester and the best Duel of Wits to the Death ever filmed. Speaking of which, it's educational, too. If you hadn't ever seen this movie, how would you know never to get involved in a land war in Asia and never to go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line?

3. Princess Mononoke: Or, as the hardcore anime nerds out there will insist on calling it, Mononoke-hime. This Japanese title translates roughly to "Princess of the Spirits," which to my ears is a better, more evocative English title than what was chosen. As it stands, the title is a bit confusing, as there's no character in the movie called Princess Mononoke. Quibbles with the title aside, this is just a stupendous movie. Stunning visuals, a thoroughly absorbing story, breathtaking action, political intrigue...what more do you need? A piece of advice - watch it with the Japanese language track and the Japanese-to-English subtitles. It's one of the best anime translations out there, written by the great Neil Gaiman, and certainly not so stilted and awkward as the dubs on old "Speed Racer" episodes...but it still works best in Japanese.

2. The Empire Strikes Back: Okay, this should really be the entire original Star Wars trilogy...but Empire is by far the best of the lot, so call it a representative of the whole. I think of Star Wars as fantasy in sci-fi clothing. Yeah, it's got spaceships and ray-guns...but the heart of it is the story of a farm-boy who is given his father's sword, battles a variety of grotesque monsters and learns magic from a wizened sage in order that he might confront the evil king. It has more in common with Greek mythology and the Arthurian legends than with 2001 or Blade Runner. "Space fantasy" is a term a lot of nerds use (ever categorizing and carefully defining sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, us nerds), and I think it's pretty accurate. Even "Star Trek" offers a bit of pseudo-science technobabble about dilithium crystals and matter-antimatter drive - Star Wars doesn't even bother expending the tiniest bit of effort telling us how or why faster-than-light travel is possible, it is only important that it is. To my mind, that makes all the difference.

1. The Lord of the Rings: Was there any doubt? Unlike the Star Wars movies, I don't think this can really be separated into its component parts. It's one massive movie divided by necessity into a trilogy - just as the source material is one massive book divided by necessity into three.

Here's the part where I commit a bit of nerd heresy. I think that Peter Jackson & Co. actually improved on the books. By eliminating the wholly useless bits and altering a few details, they've given the story more focus and changed some characters' roles from passive observer to active participant. C'mon, admit it, big nerds: the Tom Bombadil chapters are not only boring but actively annoying. And as Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens say on their commentary for The Two Towers, having Faramir simply reject the Ring out of hand, as Tolkien has him do, completely derails the idea of the Ring as a constant temptation for Frodo and an obsession for Gollum.

There are bits I don't like - the use of Gimli as little more than comic relief, Legolas's "surfing" - but 9 times out of 10 the movie looks exactly like what I pictured in my head: Gandalf confronting the Balrog, the Argonath (a small detail, yes, but perfect), the Battle of Helm's Deep, the Siege of Minas Tirith...dead-on, I tell ya.