The boundaries of the fantasyliterary genre are not well-defined, and the same is therefore true for the film genre as well. Categorizing a movie as fantasy may thus require an examination of the themes, narrative approach and other structural elements of the film.
For example, much about the Star Wars saga suggests science fiction, yet it has the feel of fantasy, whereas much about Time Bandits (1981) suggests fantasy, yet it has the feel of science fiction. Some film critics borrow the literary term Science Fantasy to describe such hybrids of the two genres.
Animated films featuring fantastic elements are not always classified as fantasy, particularly when they are intended for children. Bambi (1942), for example, is not fantasy, nor is 1995's Toy Story, though the latter is probably closer to fantasy than the former. The Secret of NIMH from 1982, however, may be considered to be a fantasy film because there is actual magic involved.
Other children's movies, such as Walt Disney's 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are also difficult to categorize. Snow White features a medieval setting, dwarven characters, the use of sorcery, and other tropes common to fantasy. Yet many fans of the genre do not believe such movies qualify as fantasy, placing them in instead in a separate fairy tale genre.
Superhero films also fulfill the requirements of the fantasy or science fiction genres but are often considered to be a separate genre. Some critics, however, classify superhero literature and film as a subgenre of fantasy (Superhero Fantasy) rather than as an entirely separate category.
Films that rely on magic primarily as a gimmick, such the 1976 film Freaky Friday and its 2003 re-make in which a mother and daughter magically switch bodies, may technically qualify as fantasy but are nevertheless not generally considered part of the genre.
Surrealist film also describes the fantastic, but it dispenses with genre narrative conventions and is usually thought of as a separate category. Finally, manyMartial arts films feature medieval settings and incorporate elements of the fantastic (see for example Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but fans of such films do not agree if they should also be considered examples of the fantasy genre.
Several sub-categories of fantasy films can be identified, although the delineations between these subgenres, much as in fantasy literature, are somewhat fluid.
The most common fantasy subgenres depicted in movies are High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. Both categories typically employ quasi-medieval settings, wizards, magical creatures and other elements commonly associated with fantasy stories.
High Fantasy films tend to feature a more richly developed fantasy world, and may also be more character-oriented or thematically complex. Often, they feature a hero of humble origins and a clear distinction between good and evil set against each other in an epic struggle. Many scholars cite J. R. R. Tolkien'sThe Lord of the Rings novel as the prototypical modern example of High Fantasy in literature, and the recent Peter Jacksonfilm adaptation of the books is a good example of the High Fantasy subgenre on theSILVER screen.
Sword and Sorcery movies tend to be more plot-driven than high fantasy and focus heavily on action sequences, often pitting a physically powerful but unsophisticated warrior against an evil wizard or other supernaturally-endowed enemy. Although Sword and Sorcery films sometimes describe an epic battle between good and evil similar to those found in many High Fantasy movies, they may alternately present the hero as having more immediate motivations, such as the need toPROTECT a vulnerable maiden or village, or even being driven by the desire for vengeance.
The 1982 film adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, for example, is a personal (non-epic) story concerning the hero's quest for revenge and his efforts to thwart a single megalomaniac—while saving a beautiful princess in the process. Some critics refer to such films by the term Sword and Sandalrather than Sword and Sorcery, although others would maintain that the Sword and Sandal label should be reserved only for the subset of fantasy films set in ancient times on the planet Earth, and still others would broaden the term to encompass films that have no fantastic elements whatsoever. To some, the term Sword and Sandal has pejorative connotations, designating a film with a low-quality script, bad acting and poor production values.
Another important subgenre of fantasy films that has become more popular in recent years is contemporary fantasy. Such films feature magical effects or supernatural occurrences happening in the "real" world of today.
As a cinematic genre, fantasy has traditionally not been regarded as highly as the related genre of science fiction film. Undoubtedly, the fact that until recently fantasy films often suffered from the "Sword and Sandal" afflictions of inferior production values, over-the-top acting and decidedly poor special effects was a significant factor in fantasy film's low regard.
Since the late 1990s, however, the genre has gained new respectability in a way, driven principally by the successful adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of theRINGS and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Jackson's The Lord of theRINGS trilogy is notable due to its ambitious scope, serious tone and thematic complexity. These pictures achieved phenomenal commercial and critical success, and the third installment of the trilogy became the first fantasy film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The Harry Potter series has been a tremendous financial success, has achieved critical acclaim, and boasts an enormous and loyal fanbase.
Fantasy movies in recent years, such as the Lord of the Rings films, the first and third Narnia adaptations, and the first second, fourth and seventh Harry Potter adaptations have most often been released in November and December. This is in contrast to science fiction films, which are often released during the northern hemisphere summer (June - August). All 3 installments of the Pirates of the Caribbean fantasy films, however, were released in July 2003, July 2006 and May 2007 respectively, and the latest releases in the Harry Potter series were released in July, 2007 and July 2009. The huge commercial success of these pictures may indicate a change in Hollywood's approach to big-budget fantasy film releases.
Fantasy films have a history almost as old as the medium itself. However, fantasy films were relatively few and far between until the 1980s, when high-tech filmmaking techniques and increased audience interest caused the genre to flourish.
Following the advent of sound films, audiences of all ages were introduced to 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Also notable of the era, the iconic 1933 film King Kongborrows heavily from the Lost World subgenre of fantasy fiction as does such films as the 1935 adaption of H. Rider Haggard's novel She about an African expedition that discovers an immortal queen known as Ayesha "She who must be obeyed". Frank Capra's 1937 picture Lost Horizon transported audiences to the Himalayan fantasy kingdom of Shangri-La, where the residents magically never age. Other noteworthy fantasy film of the 30s include Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932 starring Johnny Weissmuller starting a successful series of talking pictures based on the fantasy-adventure novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the G. W. Pabst directed The Mistress of Atlantis from 1932. 1932 saw the release of the Universal Studios monster movie The Mummy which combined horror with a romantic fantasy twist. more light-hearted and comedic affairs from the decade include films like 1934s romantic drama film Death Takes a Holidaywhere Fredric March plays Death who takes a human body to experience life for three days, and 1937s Topper where a man is haunted by two fun loving ghosts who try to make his life a little more exciting.
A few low budget "Lost World" pictures were made in the 1970s, such as 1975's The Land That Time Forgot. Otherwise, the fantasy genre was largely absent from mainstream movies in this decade, although 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory were two fantasy pictures in the public eye the former being predominantly from the same team who did Mary Poppins the latter again being from Roald Dahl in both script and novel.