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The Empress, the Mermaid and the Princess Bride: Three 80s Fantasy Movies

  With the advances in special effects around the end of the nineteen-seventies, it became increasingly possible to realise all sorts of new worlds and characters in the realm of the fantasy movie in the eighties - not science fiction, which was a different beast, but films that divined entertainment from the ideas of mythical creatures and other lands where magic could be real. Among the likes of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, Disney's elaborate sequel Return to Oz and Ridley Scott's Legend, were three movies that used their basis in fantasy to inform strong cult followings, and West Germany's 1984 production of The Neverending Story was one of them. It had been drawn from the book by Michael Ende, but famously he detested the big screen results and lobbied to distance himself from the project, however if a lot of what director Wolfgang Petersen shot was extrapolated from the source or just plain made up, it did find an appreciative audience.

It became one of the biggest German films of all time, even in West Germany of the day, and an international cut was developed that tightened up the original version and added the famed theme song, performed by Limahl from the flash in the pan pop group Kajagoogoo and written and produced by one of Germany's biggest music men, Giorgio Moroder. The consequence to that was it ended up doing better for Warner Bros than their big fantasy story hope of the year, Supergirl, and proved there was indeed an audience for these sorts of effects-filled pictures, a style that would indicate how popular these would become and how vital to the industry both financially and creatively they would be. Yet for all the plot's claims to be as American as apple pie, including an American lead character (or two), there was a distinct European flavour to the effort that reminded one this was the nation which brought you The Singing Ringing Tree.

Okay, that was technically East Germany and reunification would not occur until the end of the decade, but The Neverending Story definitely had that sense of hard lessons to teach the audience through imagery that could be disturbing, and was certainly strange. The story began with Bastian (Barret Oliver, who first gained fame in TV's Battlestar Galactica), who has not only lost his mother recently and is still struggling with grieving, but is bullied at school by bigger kids who think he is weird, so when he escapes his tormentors by hiding in a second-hand bookstore, the metaphor was clear, particularly when he borrows a tome to peruse. Sneaking into the attic, he starts reading to lose himself in the world of fantasy - the world of Fantasia, to be precise - which is suffering a crisis in that it and its denizens are being destroyed by The Nothing, a vast, shapeless void which devours all in its path. Why could this be? If you haven't worked it out, by the last sequence they could not have made it any clearer, it was the old Peter Pan believing in fairies gambit.

Except instead of saving Tinkerbell, we were saving a whole world as the narrative became oddly meta, with Bastian watching the boy hero Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) while we watch Bastian, and all of us growing increasingly aware on the need for us to exist and pay attention so the others can do the same. Taking the form of a traditional quest as the young warrior sets off on his noble steed to find out what can save the Empress and therefore Fantasia, the intricate, vast sets and creature makeups and puppets were evidence of no expense spared, from the giant rock man to Falkor the Luck Dragon who lives up to his title when he saves Atreyu from more than one scrape - the steed is not quite as fortunate as the message of not allowing the darker thoughts to dominate in your head has to have a sacrifice as an example, and there are more than the horse. If the happy ending seems arbitrary, as if they were not quite sure how to wrap things up, this remained one of the best designed and most ambitious of the decade's fantastical works.

The happy ending should not as a rule be out of place in what were, after all, modern fairy tales, and true to form it's difficult to think of one from the eighties that does not feature everyone living happily ever after. The makers of Splash (there was a film that needed an exclamation mark in its title) were well aware of this convention, and were not about to buck the trend, though in other ways they were keen to ensure this was less about Hans Christian Anderson's conception of its mermaid leading lady, which really did conclude in misery, and more about how she would interact in the New York City of current times. As far as that went, this was as much a plea for magic to exist in the new, harsh, bright, cynical world of the eighties as it was a full-blooded embrace of the fantastical to concoct some would-be snarky commentary on how foolish a contemporary chap would find such a wild notion.

A mermaid in the real world? How would that work out then? Splash offered a pretty good impression while remaining as much a candy floss confection as something like One Touch of Venus from decades before. Daryl Hannah was the half-fish, half-woman creation, though as in Anderson she is only part fish when she is in the water, therefore the object of her affection has no idea of her actual provenance. He was Allen, played by Tom Hanks in a role that did for his career what this did for his co-star's, made them proper movie celebrities, though Hanks saw his career better sustained than Hannah did, for whatever reasons, indeed, if anyone could look to revive Clark Gable's past mantle as The King of Hollywood it was he, taking over from Burt Reynolds as one of the most respected actors of the era running up to and past the turn of the millennium. Yet he did not do so as some impossibly handsome, unattainable he-man.

Hanks' skill was playing the ordinary guy, but imbuing him with enough charisma and downright likeability to offset the weirder elements in this film; we believe Allen when he says he loves the mermaid who adopts the name Madison (yes, this is why little girls who saw Splash grew up to name their daughters by that hitherto unpopular name), but that was not to do down Hannah's contribution. There was a rash of these stories where a fantasy character would break into prosaic reality with their quirkiness and supposed lovability around this point, be they E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Johnny Five in Short Circuit, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee or Kim Cattrall in Mannequin, to name a small selection, as if audience yearned for someone - or something - who would whisk them away from eighties mundanity and make their lives more like the movies they were flocking to see at the picture palaces.

As was often the case, Madison learns her English through watching television, but fortunately director Ron Howard, with his first really big hit, did not labour the point, she did not end up spouting pop culture catchphrases as dialogue as some of her fellow strangers in a strange land would do. Splash posits a world where the impossibility of love that genuinely means something has affected everyone: Allen had just been dumped because he didn't feel enough affection for his girlfriend, and his brother (John Candy) sums up exactly how crass society has become with his slobbish, Penthouse-reading, on the make personality. With Eugene Levy as a scientist obsessed with revealing Madison's nature, it seemed nobody believed in love quite like her and Allen and the city and its environs were simply too pessimistic and superficial to allow their romance to exist. Yet Hanks and Hannah convinced us, as in all the best fables, so if the biggest laughs came from cheerful bad taste, they contrasted nicely with the sweet sincerity of the central connection.

By 1987, it would appear audiences and studios alike remained suspicious of fairy tales, no matter the number of filmmakers keen to bring them to the big screen. With The Company of Wolves proving there was an audience for a different take on tradition back in '84, you might have anticipated more of a move towards bolstering those yarns of dashing princes and beautiful princesses, not to mention the breadth of villainy for them to battle against, but it seemed it would take Disney to reawaken the public's faith in such material when at the end of the eighties The Little Mermaid proved an immense success at the box office, paving the way for the House of Mouse's revival of its own. But two years before, the William Goldman novel The Princess Bride had finally been filmed after a decade-and-a-half of being mired in development Hell, thanks to director Rob Reiner and his love of all things Goldman.

The writer had been responsible for a raft of hits from Harper to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Marathon Man and well beyond, but The Princess Bride, his eccentric take on storytelling as viewed through the lens of the fable, published back in the seventies as a gift to his daughters, lacked an adaptation. So somehow in spite of interest from the likes of François Truffaut and Richard Lester it never happened until Reiner, who regarded it as a pet project and personal ambition to see it completed, was allowed to go ahead after making a lot of money with his other eighties hits. He had experience with comedy, rising to fame on the Norman Lear sitcom All in the Family, and it was Lear who did him the favour of producing this, amassing a top notch cast of extended cameos from the comedy world to support the less tried and tested actors higher up the credits, including Mel Smith, Billy Crystal, Peter Cook and Carol Kane.

This was one of those movies where you could not envisage a better group of performers doing any better with the material than what was on offer here. Cary Elwes channelled the best qualities of Errol Flynn as Westley, our swashbuckling hero, Robin Wright remained independently minded in spite of all the indignities inflicted upon her as Princess Buttercup (who is not technically a real princess, and at the close of the film, not a bride either, though you imagine that would not be the case for long), the trio of villains, two of whom redeem themselves, were pretentious brains of the outfit Wallace Shawn, noble, vengeance seeking swordsman Mandy Patinkin, and massive Andre the Giant (the famed wrestler's only film role of any note, alas). Then there was Chris Sarandon as the smoothly dastardly King who sets the mayhem in motion to instigate a war, and his right-hand man Christopher Guest as the ice-cold Count.

But the thing that made this the cult that it became (it was far from a blockbuster on initial release) was the attention the screenplay and direction gave to characters who easily could have been drawn from stock. Down to the smallest speaking role, each and every one of them was carefully crafted with their own distinct personalities, and none of them quite went the way you may have expected, be that because of humour, or surprising decency, or simply because we end up pitying them no matter what they had done in the plot. The gimmick, if you like, was this was a dusty storybook being read to little Fred Savage by his doting grandfather Peter Falk, and he believes at first these tales have nothing to tell him, but as the film progressed he warmed to what he was hearing, just as a modern eighties audience would have when confronted with the prospect of watching one. This irreverence masked a sincerity and faith in the power of love and doing the right thing to ensure love prevailed that has seen The Princess Bride's following increase year by year. Fair enough, there are those diehards who will always prefer the Goldman book, and they are perhaps not wrong, but the movie had its charms and a gentle lesson to teach as well.

[The Princess Bride has been rereleased on Blu-ray in a special 30th Anniversary Edition, packed with so many extras that there are too many to list - you could spend three times as much attention on them as you could the film itself. It will also be released in a special cinema showing in selected locations around the United Kingdom on Monday the 23rd of October 2017.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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