Cinema and Media Studies Fantasy
by
David Butler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0192

Introduction

Fantasy films can be traced to the early years of film history and Georges Méliès, cinema’s first great fantasist, in particular. Méliès is often presented (somewhat simplistically) as embodying one of the two fountainheads of cinema, alongside the documentary realism of the Lumière brothers, placing fantasy as a vital founding impulse in film. Fantasy films represent hopes and desires for better or alternative worlds, and through the technical developments required to portray those worlds, have contributed significantly to the development of cinema and how we experience it. For many, fantasy films are typified by formulaic products—fairy tales for children and heroic quest narratives in magical pseudo-medieval realms for adolescents—but the range of fantasy films is remarkable, taking in popular mainstream “classics” (e.g., The Wizard of Oz [1939]), big-budget franchises (e.g., Harry Potter), small-scale independent projects (e.g., Tideland [2005]) and films by prominent figures in so-called art-house cinema (e.g., Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander [1982]). That diversity and perceived emphasis on the populist and juvenile has contributed to the academic literature on fantasy film being slow to develop. Although the Freudian notion of fantasy as a psychic process to help negotiate and repress traumatic memories meant that the psychoanalytical term “fantasy” was often evident, especially in the “grand theory” flourishing across film studies in the 1970s–1990s, there was relatively little discussion of fantasy films in the sense of narrative fictions featuring worlds or events that in some way break empirically (or magically) and ontologically with the known laws of our universe. From the 1980s, science fiction and horror cinema began to accumulate a substantial literature, but the more amorphous notion of fantasy would lag far behind: scattered articles rather than sustained dialogue, despite the early and mid-1980s seeing sustained fantasy filmmaking, especially from Hollywood. Defining fantasy has been problematic (e.g., is it a coherent genre? Is it a broader impulse to move away from mimetic representations of what is understood to be empirical and ontological reality? In what way can (or should) it be distinguished from science fiction and horror?) but it has also suffered from suspicious intellectual schools of thought (Marxism not least). Perhaps inevitably, given the influx of films released in the wake of the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings (2001–2003) and Harry Potter films revealing a “global hunger” for fantasy, as Susan Napier refers to it in Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2005), the 2000s witnessed a welcome change with the publication of several introductory texts on studying fantasy film, collections on aspects of fantasy film, monographs on individual films, and articles from a wealth of theoretical perspectives.

General Overviews

Early overviews of fantasy film tended to be brief, typically a few pages in wider discussions about the history and development of film rather than focused studies. Writing in 1960, Kracauer’s chapter addressing (in part) fantasy film (Kracauer 1997, cited under Audio-Visual Style) was extensive for its time and demonstrated awareness of a wide range of exponents and techniques of cinematic fantasy, from Méliès, Chaplin and René Clair to Disney and Powell and Pressburger with particular emphasis on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Vampyr (1932). Fantasy film would not receive an extended book-length overview until Von Gunden 1989, which provides critical commentary and production details on fifteen “great fantasy films,” each representing a separate subgenre of fantasy. Von Gunden’s case studies range from 1933 (King Kong) to 1982 (Conan the Barbarian) and with the exception of La Belle et la bête (1946), Time Bandits (1981), and The Dark Crystal (1982) are all Hollywood productions. A much more extensive account of fantasy cinema is provided by Worley 2005, which provides critical commentary on a far wider range of films, going back to the earliest years of cinema and taking in examples from around the world as well as not being restricted to perceived classics or great films. In the late 2000s, Butler 2009, Fowkes 2010, Walters 2011, and Furby and Hines 2012 appeared in quick succession, offering contrasting introductions to the subject and reflecting the growing recognition and prominence of fantasy in (popular) culture as well as the softening of academia toward the validity of fantasy (film) as something meriting serious analysis. Each book provides an overview of fantasy film in terms of how to approach its study and the key issues and debates surrounding it as well as its history. All four acknowledge the difficulty in defining fantasy and address dismissive attitudes toward fantasy, but each has its own particular strengths. Butler emphasizes archival research and audio-visual style, Fowkes offers the most extensive case studies of individual films, Walters’s chapters are grouped more around conceptual discussions with Furby and Hines offering discussion of the widest range of theoretical approaches.

  • Butler, David. Fantasy Cinema: Impossible Worlds on Screen. London: Wallflower, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Covers defining fantasy (noting industry and scholarly definitions), “fantasy violence,” major genres (e.g., fairy tale), special effects and audio-visual style, and the social value and function of fantasy. The range of films discussed is the widest of the recent introductions in terms of examples outside Hollywood, including Czech, French, and Japanese cinema.

  • Fowkes, Katherine A. The Fantasy Film. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444320589E-mail Citation »

    Engaging but weighted heavily toward contemporary Hollywood productions. Addresses defining the fantasy genre (including Fowkes’s own definition), a brief historical overview of fantasy film, major critical and theoretical approaches to studying fantasy film before the book’s core content: a series of readings of individual films (e.g., The Wizard of Oz) and franchises (e.g., Shrek, Harry Potter).

  • Furby, Jacqueline, and Claire Hines. Fantasy. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2012.

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    Thorough overview of the history of fantasy film and major approaches to its study. As with Fowkes, the emphasis is on Hollywood, but there is a more substantial account of the debates around definition and key theoretical discussions, including psychoanalysis, adaptation, realism, narrative, gender, violence, special effects, and the monstrous. Case studies include The Dark Knight (2008).

  • Von Gunden, Kenneth. Flights of Fancy: The Great Fantasy Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Covering fifteen “superior” films representing separate subgenres of fantasy (e.g., sword and sorcery) with clear synopses and overviews of each film’s production before discussing their respective merits. These genres are not always defined with critical rigor, however, or semantic and syntactic depth (e.g., the somewhat hazy “other worlds, other times”).

  • Walters, James. Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2011.

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    Addresses the problem of defining fantasy with insightful chapters on the relationship between fantasy and concepts such as authorship and genre (discussing the films of Vincente Minnelli), childhood and entertainment, the interior imagination and space and audio-visual style/coherency with Watership Down (1978) and The Lord of the Rings as closing case studies.

  • Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Méliès to The Lord of the Rings. Foreword by Brian Sibley. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.

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    Extensive critical commentary on the history of fantasy cinema, taking in major films and lesser-known examples. Chapters address defining fantasy film (emphasizing the presence of magic), the birth of fantasy cinema then more substantial chapters on major forms of fantasy: fairy tales, earthbound fantasy, heroic fantasy, and epic fantasy.

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