Today in Movie History: December 17

It’s hard to underestimate the influence of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. It was clear form the two films that preceded it that something extraordinary was afoot. But its staggering critical and box office success helped cement our current franchise-heavy cinematic culture (along with the Harry Potter films), as well as finally validating the fantasy genre as an art form. It’s a brilliant film in its own right, and as the years go by it’s increasingly clear just how indelible a part of the canon it (and the previous two films in the trilogy) have become. It opened 15 years ago today in 2003.

This is actually an auspicious date for fantasy movies: Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal came out on the same day in 1982. Henson always believe that puppets could be used for more than just family entertainment, and this ambitious feature is proof of concept: a stunning tale of an alien world on the brink of a shattering change. Redolent with the Hero’s Journey and demonstrating just how much magic puppets could be in the hands of the master, it became a strange and beautiful high point to Henson’s legendary career.

The other major cinematic milestone that share this release date is  Michael Cacoyannis’s exuberant Zorba the Greek, the tale of an anxiety-laden Englishman (Alan Bates), who learns a few things about life from the exuberant title character (Anthony Quinn). It’s the role of Quinn’s life (he lost the Oscar that year to Rex Harrison in yet another what-the-actual-fuck Academy moment) and it remains a grand bit of filmmaking about finding yourself in the eyes of someone different. The film opened today in 1964.

After George Lazenby took a crack at the part, Sean Connery returned to James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. It’s a uniformly dismal entry. Connery was clearly too old for the part, the villains struggle to find their zing, and the production treats the Las Vegas setting like an extended tourism ad: a complete reversal from the Ian Fleming novel, which likened the city to a wild and dangerous gangster’s paradise. But Bond is Bond, and it remains an integral part of 007’s legacy. it opened today in 1971.

Dino De Laurentiis’s promised the moon when he attempted to remake King Kong in the mid 70s. Cheesy effects and a ramshackle plot doomed it from the beginning, though it holds a certain cheesy charm even in its worst moment. (Charles Grodin is off the chain.) It also features the film debut of Jessica Lange in the role that Fay Wray made famous, and there if nowhere else, the film finds something special. It opened today in 1976

And we’re going to save a little bit at the end here for TRON Legacy, the long-delayed sequel to the cult classic original. It underperformed and is not widely loved, but I maintain that it’s a severely underrated bit of popcorn well worth a second look. It opened today in 2010.



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