Fantasy as a genre has been at the face of cinema for years, from Georges Méliès’ 1903 French silent film A Trip to the Moon to upcoming releases like Dune. However, as fantasy has dominated mainstream cinema since the late ’90s, it’s success has never been assured. With a growing trend in making the genre more “accessible”, it has also suffered from a decline in complexity and a decrease in quality. With this correlation becoming more apparent, one wonders if modern fantasy’s failing is the fact it’s becoming inherently dumber.
Fantasy never particularly started as complex. In the age of silent movies where there was an arguable limitation on narrative, they were usually defined by their fantastical elements such as magic, unique creatures or at least something idiosyncratic that could be seen or imagined. It was the emphasis on the visual spectacle that often meant that silent fantasy films were left relatively uncomplicated.
However, after the introduction of sound into movies, it didn’t take long for fantasy to quickly adapt. The late 1930s, in particular, boomed with fantasy films with releases like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz and King Kong. These films began to create worlds packed to the brim with lore and magic, making organically lived-in universes that captured filmgoers of all ages and felt undeniably distinct. But as time passed, pure fantasy slowly lost its notability as its subgenre inspirations like science-fiction and horror took the reins.
It arguably remained like this however until the Lord of the Rings trilogy took the world by storm, adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga into a trilogy of movies that seeped with complexity and side-narratives that weren’t spoon-fed to audiences. Jackson took risks, allowing revelations to come from audience interpretation, or later narrative reveals rather than holding the audience’s hand. It was this faith, and in a sense, the process of understanding the world of Middle Earth that makes the Lord of the Rings enjoyable to watch and thus successful. To a lesser extent, this is what made Harry Potter so successful as well, as we were offered complex worlds that had lore that expanded past the strands of narrative and created a cohesive world that felt alive. While these films may not seem complex or even complicated to understand, their worlds served much more than to furnish the narrative, making them feel real and rewarding to watch.
This becomes the fine line that trips up modern fantasy, as films try to create fantastical worlds that aid the narrative without organically filling the world. Artemis Fowl suffers dramatically from a bombardment of magic and creatures that are never fully connected to the world around it. On the other hand, A Wrinkle in Time simplifies its source material in favour of visual spectacle and humour, losing the heart and tightly compact scientific edge that underscores the novels. Their worlds feel shallow and provide minimal opportunity to understand the film’s world through a process of “learning”. Every world-building event is either explained to death or relegated as nothing more than trying to be entertaining. It makes them seem dumber and less thought-out and therefore, less engaging and enjoyable.
When trying to discern the complexity of fantasy, it’s essential to know that complexity doesn’t mean it’s hard to understand. What we mean is that its narrative is not the only thing that furnishes its world, but instead is one part of a whole. With successful blockbuster fantasy films, we often see a depicted and thriving world stuffed full of lore and stories that need a history book to comprehend them fully. For dumbed-down fantasy, its world is the sum of its narrative, with no sense of an expansive plan that the narrative inhabits. While Lord of the Rings can be seen as the apex of modern fantasy, it’s also proof that fantasy thrives on complexity. So, with no films regarded in the same vein of fantastical accomplishment since it’s release almost twenty years ago, it begs to answer the fear that modern fantasy is becoming too dumb for its own good.