Once upon a time – about 40 years ago – live-action high fantasy was for kids or “geeks.” It wasn’t cool or edgy, and it certainly didn’t win much at awards shows. The genre was a mishmash of crazy practical effects and half-formed lore, imbued with the spirit of adventure. No movie exemplifies this era of epic fantasy on screen better than Willow, a 1988 adventure film—directed by Ron Howard and executive produced by George Lucas—about a wizard-in-training who teams up with a rogue knight to save a magical baby from an evil queen. (This short summary says it all.)
In 2022, an unexpected sequel to the cult film debuted on Disney+ in the form of an eight-episode first season. Similar to the original movie, it was kind of a mess – in a tweet, series creator Jon Kasdan affectionately called it a “scuffy, quirky little show.” But like its predecessor, and unlike many of today’s epic live-action fantasy shows, it was awesome. With the series recently put on pause And Willow the film’s 35th anniversary arrives this month, you have to be wondering: when did high fantasy on screen stop its pleasure?
As a movie genre, fantasy is almost as old as movies themselves. The silent movie of 1900 La Fée Aux Chou (The Cabbage Fairy) represents a woman with a wand conjuring babies out of cabbage. It is generally regarded as the the world’s first narrative film, as well as the first film directed by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché. However, epic fantasy took longer to get to grips with the screen. Other silent era films were based on epic poems such as the Austrian film The Nibelungs (1924) and included mythical creatures such as dragons and dwarfs. Later art films such as The Seventh Seal (1957) used fantastical elements to explore weighty themes such as death and spirituality. But outside of animation, especially Disney, high fantasy had no place in movies yet (perhaps because MGM’s live-action answer to Disney’s success, The Wizard of Oz, took a decade to recoup its budget). This started to change in the 1960s with movies, among other things Jason and the Argonauts (1963), but in the early 1980s epic fantasy on screen began to take off.
And that is in large part due to Star Wars (1977). The sci-fi blockbuster is hardly high fantasy. But when writing the script, George Lucas was heavily inspired by that of Joseph Campbell The hero with a thousand facesa book that explores the common threads in the structure of world myths, including the hero’s journeya principle of high fantasy. Star Wars changed everything, not just because of its groundbreaking special and practical effects (or the $100 million sales of its action figures made in the first 18 months after release). The film expanded the possibilities of on-screen narrative storytelling and proved that adult audiences had an appetite for fantasy.
Star Wars cemented Lucas’ ties to science fiction, but it’s not surprising how many other projects he was involved in during this period were high fantasy, including dragon slayer (1981), Labyrinth (1986), and Willow, which he first conceived in 1972. Other creators also began experimenting with on-screen epic fantasy; by Jim Henson The dark crystal (1982) along with Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The story without end (1984) are classics from the 1980s.
And perhaps because of aesthetic sensibilities at the time or limitations of special effects, these works have a similar spiritual vibe. At the time, high fantasy was kind of, well, silly — even Conan in a blood-soaked camp manner. Epic fantasy shows weren’t prestige TV, and the movies didn’t win Oscars. But in 2001, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Company of the Ring came along and changed the game.
Speak against Isn’t it cool news during storyboarding for CommunityJackson said he hoped the film would be viewed as a historical film, “something very different from Dark crystal or Labyrinth.” He continued: “It should have the historical authority of Brave heartinstead of the pointless fantasy mumbo-jumbo of Willow.” Jackson’s attempt to get moviegoers, critics, and awardees to take his Tolkien adaptation seriously worked. As Chris Feil reported Polygon in 2021 for the film’s 20th anniversary,”The company of the Ring earned a historic 13 nominations and broke through the Oscars genre film ceiling. The “Lord of the Rings trilogy is now widely regarded as a masterpiece cemented by Return of the King winning Best Picture at the 76th Academy Awards, the first fantasy film to do so. “Jackson hadn’t just made an adventure with goblins and elves,” Feil wrote, “he had made something on the wavelength of Oscar legends like Lawrence of Arabia.”
Now high fantasy was not a niche genre. It was respectable cinema. And after that Lord of the Ringscountless film adaptations of books such as The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Eragon (2006), and The Golden Compass (2007) attempted to capitalize on the growing market for high fantasy media and the simultaneous popularity of Harry Potter. But epic fantasy on TV was a different story.
It was only 10 years after the release of Community That Game of Thrones became the first television series to piggyback on Jackson’s success and run with it. The influence of GoT on live-action fantasy cannot be overemphasized. as Alex Stedman wrote for IGN in 2022, Thrones made fantasy cool on mainstream TV. “In hindsight we know Game of Thrones was an unprecedented blow to HBO, but more than a decade ago it was [still] a tough sell – and a big risk. George RR Martin’s novels are darker than Lord of the Ringswith morally gray characters fighting for power rather than fighting evil, and the HBO adaptation leaned full throttle on those themes.
To honor the source material and get critics and award-winners to take small-screen fantasy seriously, the creators of Thrones introduced viewers to a world full of violence and sex. Fantasy became prestige TV, but also lost its fun factor. The show’s reliance on nudity and sexual assault in particular drove viewers away and received much criticism. In a 2021 essay for The Atlantic on GoT’s legacy, Sophie Gilbert wrote that the show “has the dubious honor of being the pinnacle of rape culture on television. No series before, or since, has so blatantly served up rape and assault just for kicks. But it wasn’t just for kicks, it was for accolades. And GoT has certainly had a lasting effect as now seemingly every streaming service is trying to produce its own epic fantasy series with rewards.
The attempt to “unnerve” fantasy on screen by sinking teeth into it worked, and since GoT’s finale in 2019, the genre has gone darker and darker (sometimes literally). House of the Dragon and the slightly lighter Rings of power usually bring more of the same: impressive special effects, high stakes and a self-esteem that is beginning to wear out its welcome. Even shows like Shadow and bonesthat has a specific CW energy is meant to be respected, not just enjoyed.
The Disney+, on the other hand Willow series was a breath of fresh air, harking back to a bygone era of on-screen epic fantasy, focused more on ravishing than profound. Like the movie, Willow has a charming joking streak and follows a group of mostly teenagers (plus an older Willow) on a rescue mission/journey of self-discovery. It’s a story as old as time, though it hasn’t been shown on the small screen recently without gore and sexual violence. The show, by all accounts did well on streaming, worked because it just wasn’t that deep. In a 2018 review of the movie for The Los Angeles Times, critic Sheila Benson wrote, “As it evaporates from memory with the airiness of a bubble bath, it at least leaves behind a friendly glow and a sense of a magical world lovingly evoked.” The same can be said of the series.
The show’s uncertain future is a loss to all viewers looking for a silly live-action magic show with great hands-on effects and a group of misfits you actually want to root for. (Let alone strange audience who got to see a very nice on-screen romance.)
Don’t get me wrong, high fantasy as a genre should be taken seriously. That movies like Lord of the Rings and shows as Game of Thrones bringing epic fantasy to the masses and commanding the esteem of notoriously stuffy organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a win. But there’s also room for on-screen epics that are just a good time.
In short: give us more Willow. Make high fantasy goofy again.