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Good Fantasy Movies (1995-00): The Sprite Stuff

MassieTwins2Welcoming the middle of the ‘90s with perhaps the most media attention of any current event (despite the Russian attack on Chechnya, the $20 billion aid program for Mexico, the Rwandan massacre, the Bosnia-Croatia conflict, and France’s experimentation with nuclear weapons) was the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson, which stretched virtually the entire year. And cinema was not to be deterred with the media’s infatuation with real-life mayhem and murder. ~ Massie Twins

This wondrous form of speculative fiction

Current events fueled the cinematic industry, at least inspirationally, as evidenced by the likes of “Primal Fear,” “Seven,” and “The Bone Collector,” each of which utilized the sensibilities of fantasy in the extreme coincidences of sleuthing, the intelligence of the criminal masterminds, and the extravagant homicides themselves (amplified by morbid creativity).

Though “The Crow” and Jan Svankmajer’s “Faust” were decidedly darker explorations of fantasy leading up to 1995, that significant midway point saw one of the most successful of all children’s fantasy films come to life. “Babe,” based on the Dick King-Smith novel “The Sheep-Pig,” was a sensational work of talking animals (by Rhythm & Hues Studios) and animatronic swine (by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), which went on to garner seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture – a stunning feat for a G-rated family film. And right around the corner was another family fantasy, “Jumanji” (sporting a similarly gentle PG), helmed by Joe Johnston, who previously gave audiences the comparably genre-blending pictures “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “The Rocketeer,” and “The Pagemaster.”

Rounding off 1995’s achievements was one of the most prestigious efforts – the very first computer-animated, feature-length film: “Toy Story.” And it wasn’t just the technical advancements or the cute characters or the catchy Randy Newman songs or the star voice talents that attracted audiences; the story was creative, adventurous, and staggeringly moving. And it would be rewarded with countless critical accolades and special awards designed specifically for its accomplishments, along with the designation of highest-grossing domestic movie of the year.


Morbid and Magical Fantasy Movie Recommendations

‘Rough Magic’ (Clare Peploe, 1995)

In this romantic drama (fused with comedy, magic, and murder), a beautiful magician’s apprentice, Myra (Bridget Fonda), flees to Mexico during the ‘50s to avoid the consequences of a stage trick gone awry – and her estranged, enraged fiancé (D.W. Moffett). Plus, she’s trailed by a private eye (Russell Crowe), who quickly falls in love with his target.

But her real goal is to acquire a potent blue elixir from a Mayan shaman, certain to cast some hocus pocus on her exasperation with true love. Furthermore mixing in a road movie formula, the comical caricaturing of Jim Broadbent as a snake oil salesman, Crowe in top form, and a retooling of the premise from “It Happened One Night,” “Rough Magic” proves to be a whimsical, airy bit of entertainment full of romance and magic – based on the superiorly titled James Hadley Chase novel “Miss Shumway Waves a Wand.”

‘Slayers the Motion Picture’ (Hiroshi Watanabe and Kazuo Yamazaki, 1995)

Mostly unknown in the States but with substantial saturation in its homeland of Japan, the “Slayers” franchise originated from Hajime Kanzaka’s light novels, serialized in the late ‘80s in Dragon Magazine. Manga followed, along with with an animated television series, feature-length films, an OVA (original video animation) series, video games, radio dramas, and more.

The purpose is essentially to parody popular fantasy adventure properties, relying on qualities that could be considered hackneyed or overused in order to not only spoof the more serious players in the genre but also to poke fun at its own shortcomings. This first movie focuses on the misadventures of teenage sorceress Lina Inverse as she battles a touristy island front for bandits and a supernatural mazoku, who can cross the boundaries of the astral plane, while also questing to acquire a legendary Sword of Light – while also hoping that some fabled hot springs can be used to magically augment her breasts.

‘Kazaam’ (Paul M. Glaser, 1996)

One wouldn’t think that the differences between a genie and a djinn would surface in this critical catastrophe and box office bomb, but as it goes through the motions of mimicking a live-action “Aladdin” with an urban bent, “Kazaam” confronts not only the depths of intangible wishes but also bullying, lying, father/son bonding, fulfilling expectations, the nature of second chances, and genies wishing for wishes.

The plot is silly and the characters are lifeless, but there’s something amusing in the premise of disguising the tough streets of Brooklyn as a socioeconomic issue that can be resolved – or at least temporarily mitigated for a deserving individual – with a little magic. Plus, who can resist sports star Shaquille O’Neal as a boombox-residing, disembodied spirit who can rap away his woes, take heat from his girlfriend, and transform the villain into a dunkable basketball all with minimal effort.

‘FairyTale: A True Story’ (Charles Sturridge, 1997)

Merging the real-life personas of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini into a mythical yarn about the Cottingley Fairies is a bold move (especially considering the debunking in the ‘80s); but it wouldn’t be the only time it was done theatrically in 1997 – though this family-friendly affair is definitely the lighter of the two cinematic efforts. This adaptation further incorporates the names of young photographers Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, hoping to preserve the concept of spirituality winning out over a stern magician who, ironically, was a firm skeptic of anything remotely otherworldly.

Serving essentially as a biographical depiction of the photographing of fairies at Cottingley Beck, which would be published in The Strand Magazine and later confessed as fraudulent by the instigators themselves, this easygoing fantasy stars Peter O’Toole as Doyle and Harvey Keitel as Houdini, each contributing to an onscreen chemistry far better than the two girls at the heart of the story, who cope with uprooting and mourning with a touch of imagination and celebrity.

‘Photographing Fairies’ (Nick Willing, 1997)

In that inexplicably not-so-rare scenario in which dual movies are released in the same year with the same specific subject matter, “Photographing Fairies” opened almost simultaneously with “FairyTale: A True Story” – both based on the Cottingley Fairies hoax, a headline seemingly far too narrow in public conscience to warrant such comprehensive big-screen attention.

This take, however, is significantly darker, earning an R-rating for sexuality and the inclusion of morbid themes, such as photographing corpses, committing murder, the taking of hallucinogens/opiates, contemplating alternate planes of existence, and investigating parapsychological hypotheses.

Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) can’t save his new wife from a tragic Alpine accident, but he can deflate the genuineness of photographs presented at the Theosophical Society by Arthur Conan Doyle (here played by Edward Hardwicke). When he’s presented with another picture, this time possessing a reflection that can’t be explained, he immerses himself in a realm of psychedelic flora, authentic sprites, and an obsession that turns deadly. Though reasonably budgeted and distributed, “Photographing Fairies” has dropped into a state of total obscurity, never even receiving a proper home video release in the U.S. beyond a limited laserdisc and VHS appearance.


A realm of tremendous materpieces

The fantasy genre almost always wanders into the realms of historical, biblical, horror, science-fiction (as in space operas), or quasi-medieval environments, giving it a particularly rich and sweeping range for cinematic inclusions.

Even without visualized magic, mythology, or escapism, this wondrous form of speculative fiction (a term popularized by controversial author Robert Heinlein) provides just as many tremendously famous masterpieces as it does a plethora of overlooked works worthy of closer examination or reevaluation.
Do you have a favorite of the era? If so, please don’t hesitate to mention it in the comment section below!

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