Apart from Harry Potter, Twilight and the Tolkien adaptations, live-action fantasy movies always seem to tank these days. Latest case in point: Mortal Instruments, which underperformed massively, taking in only about $14 million on a $60 million budget. Why are fantasy movies cursed?
Here's a partial list of fantasy movies that have underperformed domestically in the last decade or so, according to Box Office Mojo: The Last Airbender, Eragon, Immortals, The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Golden Compass, Bewitched, Dragonball Evolution, Dylan Dog, Jack the Giant Slayer, Mirror Mirror, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the Conan reboot, The Brothers Grimm, Inkheart, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising and Beautiful Creatures.
Meanwhile, Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson did just barely well enough to justify sequels, which tanked. Also, the first Chronicles of Narnia movie did quite well, but then the sequels fell off a cliff.
The main success story of the past few years is Snow White and the Huntsman — plus Thor, if you consider it a fantasy movie instead of a superhero movie.
All in all, it's a pretty terrible track record. This is the genre that completely rules books, or at least has done for a lot of the past decade — but fantasy can't get a foothold at the movies, other than the Big Three franchises.
Here are a few possible explanations:
Terrible movies. Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat. What do almost all of the movies on the above list of flops have in common? Right. They're awful. Especially as compared to the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films. There's just something about spells and curses, and especially heroic prophecies, that encourages film-makers to aim incredibly low.
In particular, there's a lot of insane camp in those films, and many otherwise great actors delivering ridiculously broad, comic performances. We yield to noone in our love of camp — but lazy, who-gives-a-fuck camp is the worst kind. Most of all, few of these movies succeed in capturing the passion and intensity of the books they're ostensibly based on. Which brings us to:
Studio interference. This is a problem with all films, everywhere, but when you have a combination of "We're pouring $200 million into this in the hopes of having the next LotR/Potter" and "We don't really respect the material," you have a recipe for insane studio meddling. Just read the history of the Golden Compass adaptation sometime, and you'll want to weep — a challenging, intense book was turned into a terrible shell of a movie.
In fact, when you read about the behind-the-scenes interference on things like Compass, it reminds you of the stories about executives demanding weird shit in Superman Reborn and Superman: Flyby. A big part of the problem is probably that fantasy movies are where superhero movies were prior to the advent of Singer, Raimi, Nolan and especially Feige: people see them as dumb fluff, so why not go nuts?
Nobody's figured out how to do magic. As in, how to make it visually compelling. But also, how to give it a sense of weight, and real wonder. Other than Peter Jackson and maybe David Yates. We figured out how to make Spider-Man swing around Manhattan, and how to make Batman jump off rooftops in a compelling way — but magic still doesn't look that cool on screen.
And part of the problem is that magic, to be believable, needs good storytelling and world-building to support it. You can't believe in magic unless the actors on screen covey their own belief in magic, with every gesture and expression. So it's not just that we need a visual language of showing "this is a magic spell being done" — we also need direction and acting that go out of their way to show us that magic is a big deal, that it's only used when necessary, and that it's something massively transformative.
Basically, even if the movies are somewhat silly in general, they need to make us take magic seriously, and I haven't seen that in too many movies. Speaking of which...
Game of Thrones-mania hasn't hit movies yet. Hopefully, this is just a matter of time, especially with Thrones director Alan Taylor helming Thor: The Dark World this fall. Game of Thrones does a way better job of showing magic sparingly, and with a lot of impact, than most movies. And it's also a pretty good template for how to do a fantasy world that feels gritty and full of real people with real problems. (Of course, we don't necessarily need fantasy movies to be that porntastic or brutally violent.)
The Dire Influence of Joseph Campbell. And finally... superhero movies are plagued by the endless repetition of origin stories. And similarly, fantasy movies suffer from the repetitious "hero's journey" pablum, in which a young man (it's almost always a man) discovers that he is the Chosen One and the subject of a Prophecy, and he has to gather some friends and go on a quest and meet a crone and stuff. It was cute when Star Wars did it, but less so the billionth time around. Even if you think Joseph Campbell was a brilliant visionary, the oversimplified braindead version of his template that prevails at the movies is a disgrace.
But what do you think is the reason for live action fantasy's awful batting average?