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Good Fantasy Movies (2005-10): Cell, Book & Grendel

Although box office figures heading into the decade’s midway point were discouraging at best (Exhibitor Relations calculated a 5.2% decline in moviegoer spending from 2004), the sci-fi/fantasy genre wasn’t contributing to this lull. In fact, it was picking up the slack for all the others. “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and “War of the Worlds” easily took the top four spots on the list of highest-grossing pictures, with the final prequel trilogy “Star Wars” film taking in $380 million by itself. ~ Massie Twins

The escapism society demanded

Meanwhile, television’s fantasy-thriller “Lost” (paired with “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) gave network ABC a primetime “must-see” lineup, as musical fantasy “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the computer-animated “Madagascar” made their marks on the movie industry.

Along with controversial, thought-provoking, socially-conscious dramas like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crash,” and “The Squid and the Whale,” the influx of fictional entertainment was enough to drown out the heavier themes of real-life headaches, like the NSA’s surveillance overreach, the dispiriting September 11th Public Discourse Project report, Randy Cunningham’s bribery scandal, Tom Delay’s conspiracy charges, and the complex right-to-die case of Terry Schiavo. Darker fantasy pictures still managed to provide the escapism society demanded.

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Dark Fantasy Movie Recommendations

‘Zathura’ (Jon Favreau, 2005)

A very obvious derivation of “Jumanji” (regularly criticized as “Jumanji” in space), “Zathura” is nevertheless an entertaining bit of fantasy. It should also be noted that it is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also penned “Jumanji,” which means that the critical comparisons and plotline similarities are no coincidence or sloppiness on the part of the screenwriter – here led by David Koepp, a prolific contributor to the script for such blockbuster entities as “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Spider-Man.” Plus, the film would reiterate Kristen Stewart’s appeal, before she would be indivisibly associated with the “Twilight” franchise.

The story is, once again, about two siblings who play a board game – with consequences that spiral out of control when their house is literally catapulted into outer space. And the only way to resolve their predicament is to finish the game. With the shift in environments, there are plenty of new conflicts for the youths to adventurously combat (including aliens!), which makes this pseudo-sequel to “Jumanji” almost enough to sate fans until a real follow-up (or, perhaps, the 2017-slated theatrical revisitation) hits the big screen.

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‘Beowulf & Grendel’ (Sturla Gunnarsson, 2006)

Though the epic, anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem of “Beowulf” has been adapted for film many times before, this particular take predates the 2007 computer-animated version by Robert Zemeckis, which went on to far more exposure and acclaim. But this Icelandic co-production adds some new elements to the traditional telling worth exploring.

Most engagingly is a motif of Paganism giving way to Christianity-conversion thanks to Denmark’s frailty in the face of Grendel’s slaughters, along with the addition of a witch who was sexually assaulted by Grendel, and the child that the assault produced. But perhaps more than notions like historical implications, the authentic landscapes, or the increased level of violence, it’s the casting that transforms this smallish feature into something quite watchable – Gerard Butler as Beowulf, Stellan Skarsgard as Hrothgar, and Sarah Polley as the occultist.

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‘The Fall’ (Tarsem, 2006)

No stranger to dark fantasy, Indian director Tarsem (who previously directed “The Cell,” and would follow this picture with “Immortals” and “Mirror Mirror”) helms this ode to Gilliam-esque adventures by borrowing generously from “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (and, in spots, a hint of “Time Bandits” and “Brazil”). But if a filmmaker is going to copy, there’s no reason not to take from the very best; additional details are lifted from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

The story follows little Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) as she recovers from a broken arm in a hospital, where she meets fellow patient Roy (Lee Pace). Bedridden but not imaginatively stifled, Roy tells the girl whimsical – and then terrifying – tales of diverse warriors and their heroics to overthrow a tyrannical governor, contributing intermittently to Roy’s own real-life traumas. In a rare feat, Untaru is exceptionally authentic, working closely with Pace and Tarsem to craft a story that is never once repressed by the fact that the leading actress was only 6 years old during filming.

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‘In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale’ (Uwe Boll, 2007)

If it wasn’t enough of a shock that German director Boll, the man behind such critically panned video-game-to-movie adaptations as “House of the Dead,” “Alone in the Dark,” and “Bloodrayne,” was still able to be involved in motion picture production despite so many box office failures, the fact that he raised $60 million to make yet another video game adaptation in 2007 should be absolutely heart-stopping. But in the crazy world of movies, anything can happen – and so it’s no wonder that, regardless of “In the Name of the King’s” recouping of only 1/6th the budget, Boll would go on to personally direct two theatrical sequels (the first in 2011, titled “In the Name of the King: Two Worlds,” and the second in 2014, titled “In the Name of the King: The Last Mission”).

The story follows Farmer (Jason Statham, something of a winning casting catch for Boll), an adopted boy whose parents are slaughtered by the sadistic Gallian (Ray Liotta, something of an obvious choice for Boll, as Liotta picks up virtually every role handed to him), a man intent on conquering the kingdom. But in his way stands not only the farmer (who is actually quite the warrior) but also magic, nymphs, avatars, a sprinkling of soldiers, and an aging Burt Reynolds as the King.

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‘Inkheart’ (Iain Softley, 2008)

The premise is utterly fascinating: a man with a rare, supernatural gift can manifest storybook characters from the pages of a book straight into the present day world, simply by reading passages aloud from the text. In a morbid, curse-like twist, a person in real life is sucked into the book in turn, wherein they must forever reside. This introduces an evil sorcerer who intends on building an army of fairy tale baddies to overtake the main protagonist’s seemingly normal existence.

Despite the highly singular ideas fluctuating within “Inkheart,” this filmic adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s celebrated novel makes a number of mistakes – initiated by the casting of Brendan Fraser, who appears past his prime for making swashbuckling, magic-laden adventures in league with his action peak in “The Mummy” (in a great bit of irony, Fraser would star in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” later that very same year). The addition of Helen Mirren helps the cause, but her part is cursory at best, while the elements lifted from popular writings regularly encourage audiences to wonder why more potent, thrilling materials weren’t looted for their iconic, visually flooring potential. Plus, to do this concept justice, “Inkheart” really needed more than one movie.

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A flight of fancy

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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