Advertisements

Tag Archive: Dark Crystal


Review by C.J. Bunce

You can be anything you want to be.

It’s a phrase I heard over and over growing up, and is probably the best thing you can share with someone, especially someone who dreams big.

Kevin Clash is one of those kids that dreamed big.  Kevin is the man, and the hand and voice (and heart and soul), behind Elmo, the ticklish red furry kid from Sesame Street that hit TVs and toy stores in a really big way more than a decade ago now.  A Special Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, is a thoughtful, inspiring and poignant look into the desire, preparation, planning, practice, and work, creating the magic of puppets, and specifically one of the most successful members of the most famous bands of puppets ever–the Muppets.

The healing power of make-believe is revealed in a way that viewers probably have never had access to before.  Entertainment is often viewed by society as trivial.  The enormity of the value of making people laugh and teaching basic principles of kindness is palpable, and the eyes of the young and old as they watch Elmo and his puppeteer is pretty incredible.  Even with a man standing and obviously holding this red floppy fellow who is all smile and giggles, people ignore the man as if he is not there.  It’s truly a magician in action, but more than that this documentary reveals a creator who is clearly kind himself, clearly thoughtful and cognizant of the importance of what he is doing.  The gravity of this comes through with a visit from a young girl who is part of a Kids with a Wish experience.

What Clash does is make his work look so simple.  As another puppeteer in the film says, Clash makes a piece of fabric with a human head, react like a human being would.  Elmo became so big, yet only now do we learn all that went behind that fame, and that it was primarily the vision of one very busy man.  And it resulted in the highest paid puppeteer ever.

With numerous puppeteers and entertainers commenting on Clash’s work and personal traits, and narration by Whoopi Goldberg, a real-life “wizard behind the curtain” emerges.  We get to walk along with someone’s journey of discovery of a field we might not all have thought about, yet maybe secretly wish we know more about, and learn how you can grow up on Sesame Street, and dream about becoming a part of it, and making that dream come true.

Several themes permeate this documentary–the importance of shows like Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo and public television to education and younger learning and personal growth for more than one generation, the value of mentoring and apprentice-type relationships, especially in ensuring the survival of more obscure forms of art, identifying the creative spark in someone and helping to encourage creative abilities, and the “blood, sweat, and tears” required to fulfill a dream.

Look also for Clash’s link to Jim Henson and The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth before he was 25 years old, and the iconic presence and impact of Jim Henson on him and others.  Not covered are the other things Clash has done, like serve as the voice of Splinter in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie series, as well as several public appearances and puppet work.

I’ve heard of several friends who are struggling with their Netflix subscriptions because they are running out of things–it’s the old story of having 300 channels on cable with nothing to watch.   Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is an example of something you might otherwise miss while trolling for something to watch, and it’s well worth your time.  Note that it’s not a documentary for kids–little ones should probably wait a bit before seeing that their furry TV friends are made with rods and have hands up their backs.

Advertisements

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

If there’s one thing these lists demonstrate, it’s that great fantasy stories are enduring.  All four of us have named several films that reach deep into the literary and oral tradition of myths, legends, traditional bedtime stories, and classics of fantasy literature.  It’s not surprising that what makes a great fantasy movie is the same stuff that makes a great story, period: amazing worlds, epic quests, doomed romance, and soaring imagination.  More than half the movies on my list are direct retellings of well-known tales, and all of them are adapted in one way or another from earlier source material–be that a novel from the 1990s or a play by William Shakespeare, or anything in between.

It’s neither accidental nor surprising that my personal favorites list went this way, but there are plenty of contenders that just narrowly missed the cut and are worthy of mention, at least in passing.  I’ve been thoroughly impressed by recent films Stardust (adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel) and Prince Caspian (from CS Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia), but I haven’t seen either film often enough to declare it a favorite… yet.  Likewise, two classics from my childhood deserve a nod, and would have made the cut if this were a Favorite 15: the glorious Jim Henson/Brian Froud collaboration The Dark Crystal; and Willow, which is just as good as any other high fantasy film made in the last century.  Lastly, because I feel someone should mention it, yet it somehow gets overlooked whenever we start talking about great fantasy films, is one of the few mermaid movies ever made (surprisingly enough), 1984’s fantastic classic Splash.  It gets overshadowed by Hanks’s Big from a few years later, but it really is a wonderful movie that deserves to be better remembered for its contribution to the genre.

But. You’re looking for the ones that did make the cut, so here is my winnowed-down list of my ten alltime favorite fantasy films:

1.  The Princess Bride
Art has suggested that we define great fantasy by the age at which we’re introduced to our favorites, and I tend to agree.  This Rob Reiner masterpiece came out when I was thirteen, which is the ideal time to experience this wickedly smart, hilarious, and romantic fantasy romp.  But viewers can enjoy it at any age!  There are no roles in film history to rival Carey Elwes as Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts or Mandy Patinkin’s iconic Inigo Montoya, but Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Billy Crystal, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Peter Falk, and all the others turn in perfect performances, too. T he memorable scenes and imminently-quotable catchphrases ensure this film’s status as a fantasy legend.

2.  Ever After
When you’re a fairy tale fan, the golden goose (so to speak) is, of course, Cinderella.  No other tale so captures our love of the genre and our hope for true love to lift us from the drudgery of our daily lives.  Everyone knows this story, and making it fresh and new and wonderful is hard!  But Ever After was up to the challenge, and more.  Set in the intensely naturalistic setting of early Renaissance France, this adaptation builds on the basic rags-to-riches framework to deliver a complex and deeply satisfying tale of smart lovers who complement one another, yet are set apart by a nearly unconquerable divide.  Also, it doesn’t hurt that Dougray Scott makes for a Prince Charming any woman would swoon over.

3.  A Knight’s Tale
Carrying on with the argument that retellings fit in the fantasy genre, magic or not, I’m sneaking one of my very favorite movies–period–onto this list.  Turned off by the truly dreadful previews, I nearly missed this one–and I’m so glad I didn’t.  From the ensemble cast (Heath Ledger!  Rufus Sewell!  Paul Bettany!  That guy from Firefly!) to the wacky rock soundtrack, Chaucer has never been so much fun (and he was no wet blanket to begin with).

4.  Mary Poppins
No film explores the power of childhood make-believe adventures better than this Disney classic.  Who didn’t want their toys to put themselves away?  Or spend an afternoon popping in and out of chalk drawings, riding magical carousel horses and winning the derby?  Or laugh themselves into flight?  A spoonful of sugar and the confident wink of a magical nanny makes it all possible.

5.  Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail have been centerpieces of Western fantasy as long as we’ve been telling stories.  The third, and arguably the best, installment of the Indiana Jones franchise brings that classic quest to the screen better than any film, ever.  (I’m talking to YOU, da Vinci Code.  You too, Excalibur. *shudders*)  (The second-best film adaptation of the King Arthur legend is, of course, the 1960s classic Camelot with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.)

6.  Portrait of Jennie
For pure romance and starcrossed lovers, you can’t ask for more than William Dieterle’s sweet Depression-era tale of a starving artist and the doomed model who shapes his career, and his life.  It has all the makings of a gothic mystery–but the tender performances of Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones make this instead a sweeping story of the power of love to reach beyond time and death.  Fans of Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve’s Somewhere in Time should look this one up.  (And fans of Portrait of Jennie should look up the marvelous children’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce.)

7.  Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
The best installment of one of the most beloved fantasy series of our age.  Need I say more?

8.  Beauty and the Beast
No one was surprised when this Disney adaptation of Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s classic French fairy tale became the first-ever animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and thus changed the awards structure forever).  The lavish production, with its marvelous soundtrack, brought this tale as old as time to life with all the wonder and beauty we expect in our fairy tale films.

9.  Arabian Nights
I have expressed my love for these stories on borg.com before, and this made-for-TV miniseries starring Mili Avatal absolutely swept me away.  The production is gorgeous and epic, with a bold and brilliant cast that includes fine performances by Jason Scott Lee, John Leguizamo, Rufus Sewell (!), and Andy Serkis.  It offers up all our Arabian Nights favorites: Ali Baba, Aladdin, and, of course, Scheherazade and her deeply disturbed husband, played with heartbreaking madness by Dougray Scott (who, really, we could stand to see A LOT more of.  Just sayin’.).

10.  Much Ado About Nothing
This is last on my list not because it’s my least favorite of the ten; far from it–it’s actually my alltime favorite movie!  But of the ten, it’s the one that feels the least like fantasy to me, although it has neither more nor less magic than The Princess Bride, Ever After, or A Knight’s Tale.  Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh at the height of his early career, this utterly perfect adaptation of Shakespeare’s lusty romantic comedy is set against the breathtakingly beautiful Tuscan countryside and features fantastic performances by Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, and Denzel Washington.  I want to step inside this movie and live there, every time I watch Much Ado–and if that’s not the very definition of fantasy, than I don’t know what is.

By C.J. Bunce

Fantasy movies have been around since the beginning of cinema itself.  The earliest filmmakers themselves were magicians of sorts, and what better way to dazzle an audience than show them something amazing and… unbelievable.  But it’s not until the last ten or so years that fantasy was fully realized, rich and realistic, with classic stories finally matching the imaginations of decades of readers.  There are of course exceptions.  Big ones even.  Like The Wizard of Oz.  Only The Lord of the Rings trilogy gives The Wizard of Oz a run for its money, but does any single LOTR film compare to the one, classic Oz?   I think that film still holds up today against any other film made since.

This is the first of four articles where each of the borg.com writers discusses their “ten favorite fantasy films” as we did with our favorite Halloween films last fall.  Note this is a favorites vs. a “best of” list.  We may have to do a “best of” list later, but “best of” lists are everywhere and often look exactly alike.  When you’re discussing “favorite fantasy films” as opposed to “the best” you are bound to see some of the best films straddle both lists.  But “favorites” lists allows you to fold in guilty pleasures, and maybe those films that, as quality is concerned, don’t hold their own to today’s audiences, considered from a more objective standard.  Hopefully you can pick up a fantasy film or two you either haven’t heard of or haven’t seen yet.

What is fantasy?  Our criteria was that there should be some element of magic in the film, and that the film wouldn’t better fit in another genre list like sci-fi or horror, etc.

Exclusions

My list excludes several genre films that could arguably fall into a fantasy list.  I’ll save holiday fantasies like Elf and Miracle on 34th Street for another day.  I also did not include superhero movies or action/adventure films, which I see as their own separate genres, or historical fiction, like Braveheart, despite that film often topping fantasy genre lists.  Finally, I have not included movies that are also predominantly science fiction, otherwise the “greatest space fantasy of all time”–Star Wars, would be on the list.  So my goal is including only “plain old classic fantasy movies.”

Honorable Mentions that made nobody’s Top 10

Because you can’t just list your top ten (why leave it at that?) I want to mention a few films that would have made the list before the advent of modern big fantasy films.  Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal stood by itself for a time as real, incredible fantasy, with strange creatures and places.  This film, and the strange Labyrinth, were the kind of romping fantasy that seemed to skip by an entire generation of baby boomers.  Goonies is sure to make a favorites list for me but I am not sure there is any magic there to technically merit placing on a fantasy list.  Great acting by Dennis Quaid and a great dragon voiced by Sean Connery made Dragonheart a solid fantasy film that was easy to watch over and over, and City of Ember and the better than average Disney film The Sorceror’s Apprentice with Nicholas Cage are newer fantasy films that I liked a lot but haven’t re-watched enough to have it make my list–yet.   I’d watch any of those films again today.  It’s the “over and over again watching” that I looked toward to finally nail down the order of my top ten.  So here it is, from 10 to my current favorite at the number one spot:

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.  What defines fantasy as a genre is the presence of the magical or supernatural.  Captain Jack Sparrow is a dead pirate captain, like the ghost pirate we loved in Scooby Doo, and what Lord of the Rings: Return of the King revealed to be that production’s coolest creation, the brilliantly executed army of the dead.  From a completely over-the-top but cool performance by Johnny Depp to a fun voyage, a great ship, and a whole stew of solid actors, Pirates is fun fantasy in a historical setting, with a rousing soundtrack by Klaus Badelt that will stick in your head long after the credits have rolled.

9.  Alice in Wonderland.  I’ve never been much of a fan of Tim Burton’s unique style, until I was blown away by his take on this classic story.  Burton was born to create Wonderland for movie audiences.  Johnny Depp is completely mad as the Hatter, Anne Hathaway perfectly cast as the White Queen, and Helena Bonham Carter vile and insane as the Red Queen.  They also went all out with voice work for the digital characters with Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Christopher Lee, and Michael Gough all supplying great characterization.  Beyond stunning visuals and sets, the story masterfully blends Alice in Wonderland with other works of Lewis Carroll as if they always belonged together.  Burton’s audacity pays off and Alice can be watched again and again, each time finding incredible nuances.  Burton joined Peter Jackson and Victor Fleming in an exclusive club of masters of the most classic of fantasy books to make it to screen.

8.  Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.  This movie was written and created to get it into theaters as quickly as possible, in only a matter of literally weeks.  So how can such a thrown-together film stand the test of time?  I give a lot of credit to Kevin Costner as a believably viable, yet oafish and sincere Robin.  His merry men are all well cast.  And we got to see Alan Rickman as the most classic of villains, playing the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  One of the best surprise endings gives us Sean Connery as we’d like to see him in an entire feature-length role (The achingly, poorly cast First Knight didn’t cut it, unfortunately).  Who cares if the cast isn’t British and their costumes don’t make much sense?  OK, this wouldn’t make any “best of” list, but I love watching it whenever it is on TV so it belongs right here.  And it also has a great soundtrack by Michael Kamen.

7.  Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  In one sense, taking away the last three Harry Potter films, which to me are lesser works, the first five all sort of merge together–except for the story of Azkaban.  Professor Lupin is probably the best of Harry’s professors, and his greatest role model is Sirius Black.  Of all the Harry Potter films this is the only one I will stop and watch again.  It’s a standout film in the biggest mega-fantasy franchise ever.  Here you have cool tools of fantasy like the Marauder’s Map and Hermione’s time-turner.  And the Dementors are rivaled in their quiet dark creepiness only by the Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  And although there are some minor story problems involving the time-turner and the killing of an innocent with little commentary, the digital realization of a Hippogriff named Buckbeak becomes one of the best executed fantasy animals ever.  John Williams was able to make a throughly creepy mood with his darkest (and final) Harry Potter soundtrack here.

6.  Field of Dreams.  “If you build it, he will come.” “It’s not heaven, it’s Iowa.”  Not only did Field of Dreams give us some of the best catch phrases ever, it got people who don’t like baseball to like baseball (me included).  Of all the ten movies on my list, Field of Dreams may be the most transformatively magical, and possibly the most unique because it is so off-the-wall.  How did anyone sell this as a movie?  Ghostly baseball players coming out of a cornfield to get in another game of baseball?  The one-two punch of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones (and Burt Lancaster!) put this film up with Jaws as a film that you can’t walk away from once you start watching it, even for the 100th time.

5.  The Jungle Book.  Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book of stories called The Jungle Book included the story of Mowgli, and that story comes alive in a very wonderful way in 1967’s Disney animated movie.  Mowgli’s life is the ultimate in escapes from reality for young viewers.  Who wouldn’t want to be raised by wolves?  Who wouldn’t want a giant friend who was a bear, and a wise advisor who is a black panther?  The music made the simply detailed animation more frolicking and fun.  And even the sinister villain, the tiger Shere Khan, need not meet his end in this film in order to round out a well told story of friendship, manipulation, and trust.  And the hypnotic Kaa remains unmatched as the clever manipulator until we meet Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. 

4.  The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.  What’s the best of the three movies of Middle Earth?  My hope is one of the two movies being made right now into The Hobbit series.  I have issues with both Fellowship of the Ring and even more issues with The Return of the King, but it all amounts to nitpicking.  As a series, it is the best fantasy series ever.  As stand alone film, The Two Towers makes my list for the same reason The Empire Strikes Back would trump the other Star Wars films.  Introductions of incredible places, like Rohan.  And where my eyebrows wrinkled at killing off Gandalf the White in Fellowship of the Ring to only bring him back with a different name, Gandalf the Grey knows how to lead an army into battle at Helm’s Deep.  My favorite character of the series gets a full story arc here–the classically regal and noble yet flawed Theoden King, leader of Rohan.  The brother of the frustrating Boromir is introduced as David Wenham’s Faramir, who both kidnaps and then frees the traveling Hobbits.  Merry and Pippin recruit the help of the awesome Ents–talking, walking trees that march into battle to protect what is theirs (also seen in The Wizard of Oz).  Although the main journey of Frodo and Sam and Gollum finds them moving from point B to point C in this installment, the real adventure is what happens to the other six remaining members of the Fellowship.  Whereas at the end of Return of the King the several denouements had me cheering for Gollum, in The Two Towers the excitement and pacing was just right, leaving audiences hungry for more at the end.

3.  The Muppet Movie.  A perfectly magical film.  Jim Henson can’t be overstated as sitting among the kings of creating the fantastical.  The Muppets had already been known to us through The Muppet Show, yet this movie brought laugh out loud humor to a fully realized classic hero’s journey–a drive from the East Coast to Hollywood.  With a frog and a pig and a bear and a dog and what the heck are all those other guys like Beaker and Animal and …?  Not since It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had Hollywood comic actors united behind a single important film with too many cameos to count, and all brilliantly funny.  I like all the Muppet movies but this remains my favorite.  We don’t analyze it but Henson did the unimaginable by making fabric characters as real as any human in any film and without the realism required by all other fantasy films of make-believe characters.  Instead it just has a lot of honesty and heart, to make this movie beloved by audiences for generations to come.

2.  The Wizard of Oz.  I have likely seen only Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Trek films, and Jaws more times than The Wizard of Oz over the years.  Before video tape and DVDs I remember watching once a year on a Sunday night when The Wizard of Oz was re-broadcast, waiting to watch closely again to see how they changed from a black and white Kansas farm to the technicolor land of Oz.  Along with The Jungle Book, I watched this film as a young kid (unlike 8 other films on this list that came much later) and saw first-hand what magic in fantasy was all about.  So many elements make this movie work, many from the source story by L. Frank Baum, like the long journey leading back home.  A giant village of extras with the Munchkins.  Crazy scary flying monkeys and arguably the best villain ever filmed in both the Wicked Witch of the West and the equally evil Miss Gulch.  Good costumes from 1939 meant we didn’t need CGI or animation–the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are all believable and real.  And of course the soundtrack and songs are unmatched and memorable, led by a perfect performance by the young Judy Garland.  The Wizard of Oz is the Citizen Kane of the fantasy genre.

1.  The Golden Compass.  A perfect, elaborate fantasy story in an incredible, new parallel universe of Earth.  A perfect cast.  Beautiful, unreal sets.  Historically inspired costumes that span different worlds.  Special effects that merge reality and fantasy seamlessly.  An often overlooked brilliant fantasy masterwork.  When I first saw this I instantly thought this was the finest, most enjoyable fantasy film I’d ever seen.  If all steampunk was this good I would be a true believer.  Look at the cast:  A stately Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel, a beautifully striking but sinister Nicole Kidman’s Ms. Coulter, the perfect helpers along the voyage in Sam Elliot’s Lee Scoresby and Eva Green’s Serafina, smaller roles with gravitas by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee, and stellar voiceovers by Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ian McKellen.  The design work is lavish with a textbook fantasy component talisman in the magical alethiometer, animals that share your journey and wear armor into battle with you.  Gyptians!  Flying witches with bows and arrows.  A cool airship.  A big, exciting ride.  What more could anyone want?

One big element I see across my list?  Talking animals (and other things that don’t normally talk like trees and cornfields and dead people) are in 9 of my picks.  Also, I must like Christopher Lee and Alan Rickman who show up in three films, and Johnny Depp, Ian McKellen, and Kevin Costner show up in two films.  Tomorrow… come back for day two of our favorite fantasy films and click on the Comments to let us know your favorites.

Tonight dog lovers across the galaxy tune in to their screens for the annual Super Bowl of dogdom, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  Here at borg.com, this is serious TV viewing, and this year our thoughts naturally turned to… dogs in space.  Like Laika, the first dog in space who beat mankind into the outer realms, these dogs have gone… where no man has gone before.  So we bring you our very own contenders for Best in Show–our picks for best dogs from genre fiction in TV, movies, and comics (in no particular order).

1.  Toto – Who better to start our list than the little terrier feisty enough to take a bite out of Miss Gulch and accompany Dorothy on her journey down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz?

2.  Einstein – Doc Brown’s faithful sheepdog companion, like Laika, was the first to make a historic voyage there and back again in a Delorean in Back to the Future.

3.  Fluffy – Two heads are better than one, so three must be exponentially better.  How can you not like this lovable cerberus from Harry Potter & the Sorceror’s Stone?  Just don’t let thieves know their secret, that music will lull them fast to sleep.

4.  Fang – Speaking of Harry Potter, we can’t pass up the loyal and large pal to Hagrid, Fang the boarhound (played by a Neapolitan Mastiff).  Although Hagrid calls him a bloody coward, in The Sorceror’s Stone he took Harry and company through the Forbidden Forest.

5.  Krypto – Strange how themes repeat themselves.  Originally, Krypto, like Laika and Einstein, was Jor-El’s first foray into creating a vehicle to get Kal-El (our Superman) off of the planet Krypton and on his path to Earth.  Although a mishap sends Krypto off-course, fortunately he makes his way back to his best friend.

6.  Porthos – We would later learn Porthos would have a pack of offspring of his own per Scotty in Star Trek 2009.  This fellow accompanied Captain Jonathan Archer on many a mission where no man had gone before in the earliest Star Trek stories on the series Enterprise.

7.  Astro – Maybe the first family dog we were introduced to in the future of our past, Astro loved Elroy, Judy, Jane and George Jetson and showed there are no bad dogs today and hundreds of years from now.

8.  Commander Kruge’s targ – We never learned her name, but this fiercely loyal friend helped make all of us cheer for Kruge when he went up against Admiral James T. Kirk in Star Trek: The Search for Spock.  Unfortunately, she represents the one four-legged companion on our list that doesn’t make it, thanks to that dastardly Kirk and friends.

9.  Fizzgig – Seemingly cute and innocent, Fizzgig is the Muppet companion to Kira in The Dark Crystal.  Like Kruge’s targ, although not technically Canis familiaris, he had all the qualities of a good buddy and did not hesitate to bear his fangs to protect Kira when he sensed danger.

10. Butler – James Kirk redeems himself in his last mission when he is sucked into the Nexus in Star Trek Generations.  His reaction to seeing his dog Butler at his old home shows there was a real guy in that Captain Kirk.

Honorable mention:  All greyhounds, since they look like AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back.

Do you have any others you think should make the list?  Let us know, and enjoy the Dog Show tonight! The 135th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show airs tonight and Tuesday on USA and MSNBC. Only dogs from Earth are eligible.

C.J. Bunce

Editor

borg.com

%d bloggers like this: