Fantasy Films: The Least Loved Genre

The pans of 'Your Highness' and 'Game of Thrones' is a critical tradition

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The critical consensus is that Your Highness, opening in theaters today, is tasteless, underwritten, and overly fond of pot jokes. In other words, it's thematic preoccupations are the same as other movies headlined by a member of the Judd Apatow's stock company, even the ones that got decent reviews. What's the difference? Those other raunchy bromances weren't set in medieval times. This one is. Also, there are dragons.

It's the fantasy elements that reviewers seem to have the biggest problem with. When The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt opens his review with the observation that "great screen comedies that feature a severed Minotaur's penis as a key prop are, sadly, few and far between," he's technically right, and deserves credit for getting off a good line. But terrible comedies that feature a Minotaur's penis, severed or otherwise, are equally rare. It's almost as if Honeycutt just wanted to make a joke about Minotaurs being silly. Roger Ebert didn't even try to engage with the world of damsels and sorcerers. He couldn't get past the fact director David Gordon Green and star Danny McBride (who co-wrote the script) were spending so much of their time and Universal's money "satirizing a genre that nobody goes to see when it's played straight."

Ebert has a point. Aside from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Princess Bride, and maybe Stardust, we can't think of any fantasy films that have been well-received by critics. Granted, there's been no shortage of hokey, barely releasable fantasy offerings over the years to sour critics on the entire genre. Take 2000's Dungeons & Dragons movie, the first, and almost certainly last, on-screen pairing of Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans. It goes without saying that the movie is bad, but it speaks to the low esteem the genre is held in that Salon critic Andrew O'Hehir thought it could have been worse. "If you really, really like this kind of thing," O'Hehir wrote, "you've undoubtedly seen worse."

Pedigreed fantasy projects experience similar struggles connecting with critics. David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's very complicated classic Dune cost $40 million, grossed $30 million, and was gleefully panned by critics. (Ebert observed at the time, "The heads of the sand worms begin to look more and more as if they came out of the same factory that produced Kermit the Frog," while his late partner Gene Siskel shuddered at the thought of having to watch "another one of those young prince fairy tales, I think, with the young man learning to be brave and control his emotions and then grow up to lead a nation and save the universe.") Director Peter Berg's planned reboot of the series was scrapped by Paramount last month over cost concerns. We can only remember one other comedy set in medieval times--the 2001 Martin Lawrence vehicle, Black Knight. That film's toxic reviews and middling box office returns ($40 million gross against a $50 million budget) could have something to do with the sub-genre not being revisited for ten years.

That brings us to Game of Thrones, the other fantasy test case before us this week. Advance reviews for the new HBO show based on George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books are better than the notices for Your Highness, but not rapturous enough to alleviate concerns the network spent $60 million on a fantasy series that, on the basis of this trailer, is indistinguishable from Highlander 3:

Time television critic James Poniewozik praised the show's producers for doing "a great job fitting 10 pounds of novel into the 5-pound sack that is an hour-long HBO drama," one of many lines from early reviews that won't be turning up in the show's promo spots. Though other fantasy adaptations (like Lynch's Dune, famously recut by producers in post-production) struggled to make their backstories clear to the uninitiated, Indie Wire's Caryn James complaint that  "the entire project has a heart of geek that never lets the rest of us in" suggests Game of Thrones is going the other way and catering directly to its niche. At The Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman says that the finished product "validates HBO's notion that television is the perfect medium for a fantasy series done right." Whether anyone will care is still up in the air.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.