Fantasy Films


One of the first filmmakers associated with fantasy film was the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861–1938), who used trick photography and elaborate sets to create fantastic stories such as Le voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902). As longer feature films developed in the silent era, a smattering of science fiction and fantasy narratives appeared such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1916), and The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which starred the silent film idol Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939). In Germany, directors such as Robert Wiene (1873–1938), Fritz Lang (1890–1976), and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931) set the stage for a darker type of fantasy associated with German Expressionism. Highly influential to the horror genre, these disturbing tales of evil and supernatural forces included such classics as Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , 1920), Metropolis (1927), and the vampire movie Nosferatu (1922), known for its chilling visuals and trick photography. Hans Richter (b. 1919) took a more experimental approach to special effects, using stop-motion animation in Vormittagsspuk ( Ghosts before Breakfast , 1928), a short avant-garde film that featured flying bowler hats and other inanimate objects brought to life.

Jean Cocteau.

The advent of sound film in 1927 was accompanied by innovations in special effects, creating new possibilities for cinematic fantasy. Though not as dark or gruesome as the German silent films, Hollywood's spate of monster and horror films in the 1930s, such as Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), used a similar bag of special effects tricks, including miniatures and stop-motion photography to create fantastical creatures such as the ape in King Kong , created by special-effects pioneer Willis O'Brien (1886–1962). On a lighter note, the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad delighted audiences with its vibrant colors and fantastic scenarios. Fantasy also benefited hugely from the special effects wizardry of O'Brien's protégé Ray Harryhausen (b. 1920) and from George Pal (1908–1980), who produced and directed Tom Thumb (1958), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

By the 1950s, science fiction had emerged as a major genre in its own right. Playing on fears of nuclear holocaust and anxiety associated with space travel, most science fiction films used special effects to create frightening aliens from outer space or monsters created by atomic radiation. During the same period, Hollywood audiences were treated to The Thing From Another World (1951), The Blob (1958), and a host of alien invasions. Japanese filmmakers introduced their own infamous monster in Gojira ( Godzilla, King of the Monsters , 1954).

The confluence of sound, special effects and Technicolor could also yield a more light-hearted type of fantasy, as evidenced by the perennially popular musical, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Combining song and dance within a fairy-tale narrative, the film drew on the conventions and sensibilities of the musical, a genre known for creating its own particular versions of utopian and romantic fantasy. Musical fantasy also became a common element in many Indian films, such as Awaara ( The Vagabond , 1951) by Raj Kapoor.

The combination of music and fantasy has long been a hallmark of Disney films. Perhaps best known for its work in animation, Disney has specialized in fantasy stories since its inception, with a heavy emphasis on musicals and children's fare. Classics such as Pinocchio (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), hailed as the first full-length animated film, were precursors to the recent trend in animated musicals like The Little Mermaid (1989). While many fantasy films are intended for youthful audiences and are derived directly or indirectly from children's books or fairy tales, some successfully operate on the adult level as well. The term "family film" often denotes films like Shrek (2001) that appeal to all ages by combining fantasy worlds with clever animation and more sophisticated humor.

Children's stories, fairy tales, and myths have influenced many American fantasy films, yet other cinematic strands of fantasy could be found in the "art" films of Europe, which often featured innovative, complex, and sometimes disturbing fantasies. Eschewing narrative coherence, the Surrealists used vivid set pieces, special effects, and montage to explore the possibilities of cinema as an expression of subversive and subconscious impulses. In France, the Spanish-born Salvador Dali (1904–1989) and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) collaborated to produce Un chien Andalou ( An Andalusian Dog , 1929), a short experimental piece that has retained its ability to shock and disorient film viewers. In 1930, the two applied their artistic sensibility to the politically explosive feature L'age d'or ( The Golden Age ).

Avant-garde and experimental filmmakers pushed the boundaries of cinematic expression, but fantasy also continued to flourish in more traditional forms. Drawing on his earlier explorations of surreal effects, Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) applied his imaginative skills to the creation of a classic fairy tale, La belle et la bête ( Beauty and the Beast , 1946). Current audiences are familiar with Disney's animated version of the story, but for many, Cocteau's black-and-white, live-action fantasy remains the quintessential version.

b. Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau, Maisons-Lafitte, France, 5 July 1889, d. 11 October 1963

Jean Cocteau is perhaps best known for his classic fantasy film, La belle et la bête ( Beauty and the Beast , 1946), based on the fairy tale by Madame Leprince de Beaumont. The multi-talented Cocteau was a painter, poet, and dramatist who is also remembered for his experiments in surrealist and avant-garde techniques.

Founded in the early 1920s, the Surrealist movement concerned itself with the connection between reality and fantasy, rationality and the unconscious. By harnessing and combining these opposing spheres, the Surrealists attempted to create a kind of "super-reality" characterized by disturbing, irrational, and dream-like images. While many employed shocking images in order to critique the status quo, Cocteau devoted himself to the aesthetic ramifications of the movement. In Le Sang d'un poète ( The Blood of a Poet , 1932), Cocteau used special effects to create a disjointed, expressionistic commentary on the angst of the artist. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus, this short experimental film used dream-like images to suggest the sacrifices that the artist makes in the service of art.

In Beauty and the Beast , Cocteau created a more traditional, full-length narrative. Starring Jean Marais and Josette Day, this beautiful black-and-white film tells the story of a young woman who finds herself a prisoner of a strange man/beast in atonement for her father's theft of a rose from the Beast's garden. Beauty is frightened by the growling Beast and by the enchanted manor he inhabits. Bodiless human hands usher Beauty into the castle and magically serve her dinner, while lifeless statues periodically awaken to observe her actions. Cocteau used simple but clever mechanical effects to create these and other celebrated moments of cinematic fantasy. Ultimately, Beauty and the Beast come to love one another, and when the Beast is killed at the end of the film, he turns into a prince as he and Beauty fly into the sky in a romantic embrace. Jean Marais plays three characters here: the Beast, the Prince, and Beauty's original suitor (Avenant), who simultaneously changes into the Beast just as the Beast is transformed into the Prince.

In Orphée ( Orpheus , 1950), Cocteau returned to the mythological theme of his first film, updating the story and creating a full-length narrative with a surreal bent. Set in modern-day France and once again starring Jean Marais, the film tells the story of Orpheus and his lover Eurydice as he follows her into the underworld following her death. Here and in other films, Cocteau employed a mirror motif to connote either a window into a distant place or a portal into another world. Continuing his obsession with the role of the artist, Cocteau rounded out his trilogy of Orpheus films in 1960 with Le Testament d' Orphée ( The Testament of Orpheus ), in which he appeared as himself.

Beauty and the Beast earned Cocteau the Prix Louis Delluc as well as a number of prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Cocteau was elected to the French Academy in 1955.


Le Sang d'un poète ( The Blood of a Poet , 1932), La belle et la bête ( Beauty and the Beast , 1946), L'Aigle à deux têtes ( The Eagle Has Two Heads , 1947), Orphée ( Orpheus , 1950), Le Testament d' Orphée ( The Testament of Orpheus , 1960)


Cocteau, Jean. Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film . New York: Dover, 1972.

Evans, Arthur B. Jean Cocteau and His Films of Orphic Identity . Philadelphia: Arts Alliance Press, 1977.

Fraigneau, Andre. Cocteau on the Film: Conversations with Jean Cocteau . New York: Dover, 1972.

Katherine A. Fowkes

Elsewhere, Sweden's Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) was responsible for a number of surreal films, such as Det sjunde inseglet ( The Seventh Seal , 1957), in which a knight returns from the Crusades and challenges Death to a chess game. In Italy, Federico Fellini (1920–1993) broke from the neorealist movement to produce his disjointed, dreamlike classics (1963) and Giulietta degli spiriti ( Juliet of the Spirits , 1965). And in Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956) produced the ghostly Ugetsu monogatari (1953).

Jean Cocteau creates a charming fantasy world with minimal means in La belle et la bête ( Beauty and the Beast , 1946).

Beginning in the late 1970s, Hollywood experienced a renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy, stoked in part by the films of George Lucas (b. 1944) and Steven Spielberg (b. 1946). Star Wars (1977) and E. T.: the Extraterrestrial (1982) were among the many popular films to whet movie-goers' appetites for a more upbeat type of science fiction than had been popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Star Wars drew inspiration from Kakushi-toride no san-akunin ( The Hidden Fortress , 1958), directed by the well-known Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The 1980s also saw a spate of medieval sword and sorcery films, spurred by the popularity of the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. While films such as Dragonslayer (1981) and Ladyhawke (1985) were not widely popular, they paved the way for the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first of which premiered in 2001. That same year, the runaway success of the Harry Potter children's books spawned the franchise for another film series about magic and heroism with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).

In the 1990s, Ghost (1990) emerged as the most popular among a series of supernatural melodramas that eschewed horror for comic or dramatic stories. Even The Sixth Sense (1999), which initially presented itself as horror/suspense, eventually revealed itself to be more of a melodrama in the tradition of Ghost (1990), Always (1989), and Truly Madly Deeply (1991). Many supernatural melodramas drew inspiration from earlier films. City of Angels (1998) was a mainstream remake of the art film Der Himmel über Berlin ( Wings of Desire , 1987), directed by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders (b. 1945). The Preacher's Wife (1996), Michael (1996), and Meet Joe Black (1998) provided variations on a type of non-horror, supernatural film that had experienced popularity in the 1930s and 1940s—for example, The Bishop's Wife (1947), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), and Death Takes a Holiday (1934).

In the United States and elsewhere, it was computer-generated imagery (CGI) that most affected the look and feel of cinematic fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s. The technology didn't truly come of age until the underwater fantasy The Abyss (1989) and later Toy Story (1995), an "animated" film made completely with computer imagery. Also notable for their reliance on CGI were the highly successful Jurassic Park (1993), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), and The Mask (1994). The Matrix (1999) introduced a striking new approach to the choreography of action and fight sequences. The Matrix was heavily influenced by martial arts specialists in Hong Kong and China, including John Woo (b. 1946) and the Vietnamese-born Tsui Hark (b. 1950), whose popular action/fantasies such as Suk san: Sun Suk san geen hap ( Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain , 1983) have earned him comparison to Spielberg. The Matrix also drew inspiration from Japanese anime films such as Mamoru Oshii's (b. 1951) Kô kaku kidôtai ( Ghost in the Shell , 1995). One of the first anime films to make an impact on Hollywood was Katsushiro Otomo's (b. 1954) violent techno-fantasy, Akira (1988). And although Hayao Miyazaki's (b. 1941) Mononoke-hime ( Princess Mononoke , 1997) and Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi ( Spirited Away , 2001) have not been widely viewed in the United States, their box-office success in Japan has helped make anime fantasy a major movement in international cinema.

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