Once upon a time — 40 years ago or so — live-action high fantasy was for kids or “nerds.” It wasn’t cool or edgy, and it certainly didn’t win big at awards ceremonies. The genre was a hodgepodge of goofy practical effects and half-formed lore, infused with the spirit of adventure. No film is a better example of this era of onscreen epic fantasy than Willow, a 1988 adventure flick — directed by Ron Howard and executive produced by George Lucas — about a trainee sorcerer who teams up with a rogue knight to save a magic baby from an evil queen. (This brief synopsis says it all.)
In 2022, an unexpected sequel to the cult film debuted on Disney (DIS)+ 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 lovingly dubbed it a “shabby, idiosyncratic little show.” But also like its predecessor, and unlike many other contemporary live-action epic fantasy shows, it was a blast. With the series recently put on pause and Willow the movie’s 35th anniversary coming up this month, one has to wonder: When did onscreen high fantasy stop being fun?
As a film genre, fantasy is nearly as old as motion pictures themselves. The 1900 silent movie La Fée Aux Chou (The Cabbage Fairy) depicts a woman with a wand, magicking babies out of cabbages. It’s widely regarded to be the world’s first narrative film, as well as the first movie directed by a woman, Alice Guy-Blaché. However, epic fantasy took a longer time to gain traction onscreen. Other movies from the silent era were based on epic poems like the Austrian movie Die Nibelungen (1924) and included mythical creatures like dragons and dwarves. Later art films such as The Seventh Seal (1957) used fantastic elements to explore weighty themes like death and spirituality. But outside of animation, particularly Disney, high fantasy didn’t yet have a place in movies (maybe because MGM’s live-action answer to Disney’s success, The Wizard of Oz, took a decade to earn back its budget). This started to change in the 1960s with films including Jason and the Argonauts (1963), but in the early 1980s, epic fantasy onscreen began to take off.
And this is due in large part to Star Wars (1977). The science fiction blockbuster is hardly high fantasy. But in writing the script, George Lucas was heavily inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book that explores the through threads in the structure of world myths, including the hero’s journey, a tenet of high fantasy. Star Wars changed everything not just because of its groundbreaking special and practical effects (or the $100 million that sales of its action figures brought in the first 18 months after its release). The film shifted the possibilities of narrative storytelling onscreen and proved that adult audiences had an appetite for make-believe.
Star Wars cemented Lucas’s ties to science fiction, but it’s unsurprising how many other projects he was involved with during this period were high fantasy, including Dragonslayer (1981), Labyrinth (1986), and Willow, which he first conceived in 1972. Other creators also began experimenting with epic fantasy onscreen; Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) along with Conan the Barbarian (1982) and The NeverEnding Story (1984) are ’80s classics.
And maybe due to aesthetic sensibilities at the time or special effects limitations, these works have a similar spiritual vibe. At the time, high fantasy was kind of, well, silly — even Conan in a blood-soaked camp way. Epic fantasy shows weren’t prestige TV, and the films didn’t win Oscars. But in 2001, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came along and changed the game.
Speaking to Ain’t It Cool News during storyboarding for Fellowship, Jackson said he hoped the movie would be viewed as a historical film, “something very different to Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.” He continued, “It should have the historical authority of Braveheart, rather than the meaningless fantasy mumbo-jumbo of Willow.” Jackson’s effort to get moviegoers, critics, and awards ceremonies to take his Tolkien adaptation seriously worked. As Chris Feil reported for Polygon in 2021 for the movie’s 20th anniversary, “The Fellowship of the Ring netted a historic 13 nominations and broke through the Oscars’ genre-film ceiling.” The “Lord of the Rings trilogy is now widely considered to be 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 wasn’t a niche genre. It was respectable cinema. And after Lord of the Rings, countless film adaptations of books like 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 concurrent popularity of Harry Potter. But epic fantasy on TV was another story.
It wasn’t until 10 years after the release of Fellowship that Game of Thrones became the first television series to piggyback off of Jackson’s success and run with it. GoT’s influence on live-action fantasy can’t be overstated. 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 slam-dunk for HBO, but more than a decade ago, it was [still] a tough sell — and a big risk.” George R. R. Martin’s novels are darker than Lord of the Rings, with morally gray characters fighting for power rather than battling evil, and the HBO adaptation leaned full-throttle into those themes.
To honor the source material and get critics and awards shows 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 it also lost its fun factor. The show’s reliance on nudity and sexual violence in particular drove away viewers and drew extensive criticism. In a 2021 essay for The Atlantic about GoT’s legacy, Sophie Gilbert wrote that the show “has the dubious honor of being the ne plus ultra of rape culture on television. No series before, or since, has so flagrantly served up rape and assault simply 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 attempting to produce its own awards-bait epic fantasy series.
The effort to “de-nerd” fantasy onscreen by giving it teeth worked, and since GoT’s finale in 2019, the genre has continued to trend darker (sometimes literally). House of the Dragon and the slightly more airy Rings of Power mostly bring more of the same: impressive special effects, high stakes, and a self-seriousness that has begun to wear out its welcome. Even shows like Shadow and Bone, which has a specifically CW energy to it, aim to be respected not just enjoyed.
In contrast, the Disney+ Willow series was a breath of fresh air, harkening back to a bygone era of onscreen epic fantasy more focused on being delightful than profound. Like the film, Willow has a charming hokeyness about it, following a group of mainly teens (plus an older Willow) on a rescue mission/journey of self-discovery. It’s a tale as old as time, though not one recently depicted on the small screen without gore and sexual violence. The show, which by all accounts did well on streaming, worked because it simply wasn’t that deep. In a 2018 review of the movie for The Los Angeles Times, critic Sheila Benson wrote, “If it evaporates from memory with the airiness of a bubble bath, at least it leaves 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 for all viewers looking for a silly live-action magic show with great practical effects and a ragtag band of misfits who you actually want to root for. (Not to mention queer audiences who got to see a really lovely romance play out onscreen.)
Don’t get me wrong, high fantasy as a genre should be taken seriously. That films like Lord of the Rings and shows like Game of Thrones brought epic fantasy to the masses and commanded the esteem of notoriously stuffy organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a win. But there is also room for onscreen epics that are just a good time.
In short: Give us more Willow. Make high fantasy goofy again.