One of the images here is not like the others, and there are several reasons for this:
1. It’s a matte painting.
2. It’s from a film that pre-dates the other films by about 25 years.
3. It’s far more effective.
From top to bottom, the images above are from Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Maleficent (2014) and Labyrinth (1986).
Before continuing, I will say that I am not an anti-CGI Luddite. I think CGI is marvellous and it can be used to help create truly memorable images and scenes (that is, as long as it is used in moderation and not relied on as a crutch). Although I have complaints about how CGI is used in the modern films I have named above, I do not intend to dismiss the hard work of the people who worked on them. Despite what some cynics claim, CGI is not lazy and it takes an enormous amount of work to realize an effects-intensive film.
So, what’s different? At first glance it won’t seem like there’s much of a difference at all. All of them are landscape shots showing worlds unlike our own. Taken by themselves, all of the images are somewhat impressive - all of them can be described as beautiful, and all of them have clearly been designed to create a sense of wonder in the viewer.
The difference, I would suggest, is this: The wonder the top two images inspire is temporal, and the worlds they hint at prove to be thin and superficial. In Labyrinth, by contrast, the first image we see of the fantasy world is a taster that barely hints at what we’re about to see. The fantasy world of Labyrinth unfolds scene by scene and steadily gains in substance as the film progresses, engrossing the viewer with a diversity of landscapes and numerous characters with distinct appearances and personalities. A big part of why Labyrinth was able to achieve this is because it relied on practical effects; its characters and landscapes, while of course embellished via camera trickery and expanded with the help of numerous matte paintings, are mostly real. They were created from many different materials and textures and count among their number everything from a tiny worm to an enormous, axe-wielding robot. The fantasy world is dynamic and exciting, and while the film riffs off a number of different stories (Alice In Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz among them) it is very clearly unique.
By contrast, the fantasy worlds of Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent (and many other films I won’t go into here, on account of time limitations) don’t exist outside of computers. Far worse than that, though, is how they have been reduced to sparkly, twinkling playgrounds. Fantasy, more often than not, is now a by-word for vapidity. The creatures in fantasy worlds are generally innocuous and are treated as virtual set-dressing. It is impossible to conceive of them as characters in any sense of the word, since the films in which they are used have no intention of treating them as such. That the fantasy worlds themselves are often purely virtual and lacking in diverse aesthetics and textures only intensifies the problem.
There are better ways to approach fantasy worlds, and the best modern example I can think of is Hellboy II: The Golden Army. It uses both practical effects and CGI, and does so to great effect. The fantasy world it creates is dynamic and exciting, and its characters are memorable and feel fully realized; you can imagine them existing beyond the confines of the film, and that’s a sure-fire sign of successful world-building.
So, what do you think? Do you find the fantasy worlds in modern fairy-tale/fantasy movies quite empty, or do you think they do just fine? Feel free to post your arguments/views in response!