One of the images here is not like the others, and there are several reasons for this:

1. It’s a matte painting.
2. It’s from a film that pre-dates the other films by about 25 years.
3. It’s far more effective.

From top to bottom, the images above are from Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Maleficent (2014) and Labyrinth (1986).

Before continuing, I will say that I am not an anti-CGI Luddite. I think CGI is marvellous and it can be used to help create truly memorable images and scenes (that is, as long as it is used in moderation and not relied on as a crutch). Although I have complaints about how CGI is used in the modern films I have named above, I do not intend to dismiss the hard work of the people who worked on them. Despite what some cynics claim, CGI is not lazy and it takes an enormous amount of work to realize an effects-intensive film.

So, what’s different? At first glance it won’t seem like there’s much of a difference at all. All of them are landscape shots showing worlds unlike our own. Taken by themselves, all of the images are somewhat impressive - all of them can be described as beautiful, and all of them have clearly been designed to create a sense of wonder in the viewer.

The difference, I would suggest, is this: The wonder the top two images inspire is temporal, and the worlds they hint at prove to be thin and superficial. In Labyrinth, by contrast, the first image we see of the fantasy world is a taster that barely hints at what we’re about to see. The fantasy world of Labyrinth unfolds scene by scene and steadily gains in substance as the film progresses, engrossing the viewer with a diversity of landscapes and numerous characters with distinct appearances and personalities. A big part of why Labyrinth was able to achieve this is because it relied on practical effects; its characters and landscapes, while of course embellished via camera trickery and expanded with the help of numerous matte paintings, are mostly real. They were created from many different materials and textures and count among their number everything from a tiny worm to an enormous, axe-wielding robot. The fantasy world is dynamic and exciting, and while the film riffs off a number of different stories (Alice In Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz among them) it is very clearly unique.

By contrast, the fantasy worlds of Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent (and many other films I won’t go into here, on account of time limitations) don’t exist outside of computers. Far worse than that, though, is how they have been reduced to sparkly, twinkling playgrounds. Fantasy, more often than not, is now a by-word for vapidity. The creatures in fantasy worlds are generally innocuous and are treated as virtual set-dressing. It is impossible to conceive of them as characters in any sense of the word, since the films in which they are used have no intention of treating them as such. That the fantasy worlds themselves are often purely virtual and lacking in diverse aesthetics and textures only intensifies the problem.

There are better ways to approach fantasy worlds, and the best modern example I can think of is Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It uses both practical effects and CGI, and does so to great effect. The fantasy world it creates is dynamic and exciting, and its characters are memorable and feel fully realized; you can imagine them existing beyond the confines of the film, and that’s a sure-fire sign of successful world-building.

So, what do you think? Do you find the fantasy worlds in modern fairy-tale/fantasy movies quite empty, or do you think they do just fine? Feel free to post your arguments/views in response!

Maleficent, and why Hollywood doesn’t get fairy-tales

Now, before I make my first key point I want to make one thing clear: Maleficent was fun. It was incredibly flawed in almost every respect, but it had good elements (Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning, in particular) and I’m glad I saw it.

However, it made me realize something important: Hollywood needs to stop trying to adapt fairy-tales until it learns to understand them.

There has been a proliferation of fairy tale/whimsical fantasy movies in recent years, including (but not limited to) Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Mirror Mirror (2012), Red Riding Hood (2011), Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). All of them have been variable shades of bad, and in my opinion there is a clear reason for that: all of them, without exception, over explain.

These films all treat the viewer like a brain-dead child who needs to have their hand held, and they all try to tell a ‘logical’ (I use that word loosely) story that draws superficially from a fairy-tale or a well-established fantasy story. By throwing in numerous superfluous elements (generally battles for a crown, complete with literal LOTR-style warfare etc. etc.), these films have only succeeded in making once powerful and memorable stories bland and forgettable.

Let’s take Maleficent as a case study. The film has been trumpeted as a ‘dark’ take on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty which adds depth and complexity to the most famous villain in the House of Mouse’s history. Instead of adding complexity, it creates a painfully simplistic and generic back-story (fairyland = good, men = bad) and suggests that Maleficent is only ‘bad’ because she was betrayed by a loser. As it turns out, the film is patently terrified of having Maleficent display any kind of ‘evil’ behaviour at all; she curses baby Aurora, sure, but regrets doing so almost instantly. Even worse, she doesn’t curse Aurora to death (as she does in the fairy-tale and even in the ‘U’ certificate Disney film) only a positively innocuous “sleep like death”. The character cannot be described as evil in any sense of the word, and is simply ‘misunderstood’ (a label Hollywood is extremely fond of applying to female former villains in its fairy tale adaptations/re-imaginings). Ironically, the film’s attempts to make Maleficent complex only succeed in making her bland.

Now, I’m not saying they should have made Maleficent 100% evil (TM) and entirely irredeemable - there is a middle-ground, which is perhaps best embodied by Loki from the Thor movies. Loki does many evil things, but he has great fun with his tricks and isn’t repentant or ashamed of what he is. Equally, you understand why he’s malevolent and even feel sympathy for him. By striking this balance, the Thor movies succeed in creating a villainous character that the audience, perhaps despite themselves, can actually root for. If we have to have a ‘misunderstood fairy-tale villain’ movie, why can’t the said villain be presented more like that?

Essentially, Maleficent misses the point and fails to understand what made the character memorable in the first place - she was evil, and she revelled in it. The moments in the film where Maleficent tricked characters or meddled with their lives just for the fun of it were, by far, its best.

Now, I’m sure that some people are confused. I’m criticising fairy-tale films for their simplicity, but surely the ‘original’ fairy-tales they’re based on are the most simplistic stories you can get, right? Well, yes and no. Fairy-tales are simple, sure, but more importantly they’re evocative. They contain archetypes and follow stiff formulas, and we understand them and their plots primarily because fairy-tales are embedded in the collective consciousness. They are strange and often illogical, but we can accept that because we understand that they don’t take place in our reality; if they have a reality, it’s a psychological one shaped by our most primal fears and desires. This is why most of the Disney fairy-tale films work; they are simple, and they aren’t ashamed of that. But simplicity shouldn’t be confused with childishness or a lack of substance. By leaving gaps and allowing the viewer to imagine, successful fairy-tale films linger in the mind and subsequently remain interesting. The Company of Wolves (1984), Labyrinth (1986) and Blancanieves (2012) (which is, by the way, head and shoulders above all of the afore-mentioned modern fairy-tale films) don’t feature epic wars or warrior princesses, but that’s because they don’t need them; they are confident about what they are and continue to appeal because they are strange and resonant in the manner of the best stories.

To sum up: Maleficent is superficially enjoyable, but is only propped up by the mighty planes of Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones. Next year, it will be forgotten. It’s a sad waste of potential.

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