There has been a peculiar trend that has for better or worse changed the way modern audiences view movies of the fantasy genre. Perhaps the most notable of these changes are a shift in general tone and appearance, along with a recalibrating of priorities as to what the audience expects.
If you watch the old animated films of Alice and Wonderland (1951) and The Hobbit (1977) or read the books they are based off of, you get an idea in your mind of the traditional fantasy story; something that involves elements of the magical, surreal, supernatural, and especially the unknown, as each of the main characters’ quests demonstrate.
However if after this you watch the newest Alice in Wonderland (2010) or the latest Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), you will notice a distinct difference. While all the necessary elements that make up a fantasy story remain in these films, there comes with them a scaling back of these same ideas, and an emphasis of others.
There are for example more action and fighting sequences in the newer movies compared to the older ones. There is also no hand drawn animation in the newer films, but rather a mix of live-action and CGI in its place. So what explains this different approach in creating fantasy films?
For one thing, there are several decades that separate the old and new films from each other. History is never a static, continuous line but rather a dynamic series of hills and valleys that fluctuate with the moods and demographics of the age. What appealed to audiences of one time period will not appeal in the same way to audiences of another time period, at least with the same fervor and overall relevance of before.
This of course has played a big part in the dwindling popularity of traditional hand drawn films in recent decades (at least within the United States). After The Lion King (1994) peaked as the highest grossing hand drawn film in the world (not to mention the advent of CGI animated film with Toy Story in 1995), there had been a slow decline in the popularity of such movies since its release.
By the middle of the 2000s, hand drawn films were largely phased out of the mainstream public by CGI films, and an entire generation became accustomed to a new era of animation. For example, the respective commercial and critical reactions to the hand drawn Princess and the Frog (2009) and the CGI Tangled (2010) demonstrate the ideological divide between the old and the new, with the latter succeeding over the former. This therefore solidifies the central appeal the newer animation style has on popular culture today, and thus leaves an impact on the fantasy films to come.
The other factor that has changed the look and feel of fantasy films in recent years is the increased use of action/fighting sequences. Action sequences are nothing new of course and have been around since the early days of film. However when it comes to the most popular fantasy films today, there appears to be more of a reliance on them than before. There are many reasons for this, but a couple of important ones include the audience preferring a more “intense” or “cathartic” experience at the movies, taking advantage of what CGI is able to produce, and perhaps the writers being lazy and needing to fill time.
One of my major complaints about The Hobbit trilogy was the fact that it was even made into three movies at all. While The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) includes one movie for each book, the newer trilogy stretches its main resource (a book much shorter than any of the other novels) very thin and fills in the void with more action sequences and characters who didn’t even exist in the book to begin with. I had noted once in a review of The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) on Rotten Tomatoes that it was essentially “one long video game that you couldn’t play” because it relied so much on those action sequences to justify extending the narrative of a short book into three films.
With all that said, it is fascinating to see how much our perceptions of what it means for one work of art to be part of a certain genre (in this case fantasy) can change and evolve with the decades. Certain timeless elements remain and yet our conception of the genre has taken quite a fantastical shift.