Ever since “Lord of the Rings” broke the bank in the box office, studios have been searching far and wide for books to adapt in to big films and eventually series. With “Harry Potter,” “The Chronicles of Nania,” and “Twlight” proving a humongous success, studios are not stopping their search for new series. There’s no limit to the kinds of books they’ll bank roll for a movie series, as we’ve seen with the upcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey.” With every successful film series launch, there have been some fantasy films that have fallen by the wayside, and these are five we consider vastly underrated.
The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
One of the many failed attempts to take a hit book series and turn it in to a massive franchise, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” was one of my favorite films of 2008. It was action packed, wonderfully acted, and featured a great series of performances, including Freddie Highmore (who plays twins), and Sarah Bolger. Mary Louise Parker plays a divorced mom dealing with her three resentful children that are still trying to figure out where their parents’ relationship went wrong. Moving to the Spiderwick Estate left to them by their late aunt, brother Jared uncovers a hidden field guide to the magical wood lands surrounding their new house, and also learns that their house has a protective shield protecting them from evil Goblins.
Though the Goblins are invisible to normal humans, the brothers are given a stone with a hole in it that allows them to see the Goblins and fight back. The movie garnered a great ad campaign as well as definite merchandising opportunities with the magical stone that could help its wielders see the evil Goblins. But the film series sadly never took off, even with great supporting performances by David Strathairn and Nick Nolte as the evil Goblin king. It’s a shame, too. Save for the all too convenient finale, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” has all the touchstones of classic children’s fantasy including kids dealing with adult issues, moving to a new town, and learning to use the power within to fight pure evil. Sarah Bolger is given a fantastic sequence where, using her fencing skills, she’s able to fight an entire army of Goblins single handedly. The future books feature adventures with elves, and giants.
Stephanie Leonidas is ravishing as the inadvertent heroine Helena who is thrust in to a magical world in the midst of her mother’s failing health. Dealing with the notion of losing her beloved mother, as well as leaving her life of the circus, Helena is taken in to the world she’s helped create, looking for the Princess of Shadows in a world of light being consumed by Monsters of darkness. Meanwhile Helena has been replaced with her magical double who is in her world wreaking havoc and destroying the lingering threads of the relationship she has with her father.
“Mirrormask” is a marvelous and compelling fantasy film that features some amazing special effects, and that classic gloss Neil Gaiman is known for. The screenplay from Gaiman opens Helena up to an endless slew of adventures and horrifying dangers, as the Shadow Queen hunts for the heroine. One of my favorite scenes involves Helena being hypnotized and dressed as the Shadow Princess to the haunting tune of “Close to You.”
Peter Pan (2003)
Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan, Jason Isaacs as Hook, and French hottie Ludvine Sagnier as Tinkerbell? What more can you ask for? One of my favorite stories of all time is adapted in to this entertaining and exciting version of the JM Barrie novel, where Sumpter takes on the role of the valiant Peter Pan. Rachel Hurd Wood is great as Wendy, the surrogate mother of the Lost Boys who becomes an object of jealousy and envy from Tinkerbell with Peter begins to fall for her. Wendy Darling is also given the spunk of a heroine worthy of Peter’s affection, while Sagnier is gorgeous as the pixie Tinkerbell.
Jason Isaacs is a menacing and despicable Captain Hook whose own journey to kill Peter becomes a dark and ominous mission that could spell doom for the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell. Though it’s essentially the classic story from Barrie, director PJ Hogan gives his version a dark and stylish twist. With dazzling special effects, and wonderful performances, this is a top notch adaptation of JM Barrie’s epic fantasy that should have warranted a sequel.
Some people hate this adaptation, and some people love it. As a cinematic version of the once unfilmable graphic novel, “Watchmen” takes the source material and uses it to the best of its advantage, providing an awe inspiring and engrossing science fiction fantasy. The deconstruction of the comic book mythology is still rather grim and adult, and while it lacks the engrossing snippets from the novel we saw in the graphic novel, it still retains much of Alan Moore’s themes and never sensationalizes it. While it could have transformed in to another superhero movie, director Zack Snyder sticks to the iconic imagery of the original book, while casting a slew of excellent actors to portray these rich characters.
Most notable, Jeffery Dean Morgan is masterful as the ill fated Comedian, while Jackie Earle Haley is Oscar worthy, as the psychotic anti-hero Rorshach who investigates the mysterious murder of the hero The Comedian and digs deep in to a wormhole of conspiracy, and demons from the past that begin rising to the surface. Available in many versions, “Watchmen” is entertaining in any respect, from its original version to the full version which includes the animated sequences involving “Tales of the Black Freighter.” It deserves so much more love and respect than it originally received, since it’s anything but an average superhero epic.
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Considered by many to be a companion piece to “Jumanji,” I much prefer this over the bloated and unfunny predecessor. Yet another love letter to the glory of imagination and board games, John Favreau directs this exciting space epic about two brothers Walter and Danny discover a space oriented board game in the basement of their home. Activated by clocks and reels, the pair discover that the game is as interactive as any they’ve ever played.
Soon the cards that emerge from the game board, deciding their fates begin to materialize, freezing their big sister, launching them in to the depths of the galaxy, and forcing them to do battle with robots, and alien spaceships. Favreau channels the classic science fiction of the sixties with his various monsters and villains, while the finale takes a very bittersweet turn with the appearance of a space man who is intent on helping the brothers win the game and sew their troubled relationship. It’s a great science fiction fantasy that shows board games can still pack a punch.