As kids, we played make-believe in the world of Hyrule on the playground. My friends and I hunted for the spirits of restless Poes on the wood chips beneath the monkey bars. The corkscrew slide was our portal to the Lost Woods. And when the bell rang, we pretended it was the ominous clocktower from Majora’s Mask, signaling the “Dawn of the Last Day.” We made up our own dark and fantastic storylines, and acted them out like the Legend of Zelda movie of our dreams.
I’m older now, and though I don’t play make-believe quite as much as before, I haven’t stopped imagining a movie adaptation of Nintendo’s great adventure series. So, when I lost my job a few weeks ago and suddenly found myself with a whole lot of free time, I decided the day had finally come to make my (dark) fantasy a reality. Yes, I made a Legend of Zelda movie… kind of. Since being laid off, I’ve cut together a trailer, an opening credits roll, and a breakdown video, and I wrote a 40-page story treatment for a whole-ass feature film called A Link to the Lost Age (more on that later).
This isn’t just fanfiction or childhood wish fulfillment, though. Let’s be real — Nintendo and Universal are going to announce a Zelda follow-up to the billion-dollar Super Mario Bros. Movie any day now. So I see my project as a simple plea: If you’re going to bring the Master Sword to the big screen, please don’t forget to give it some sharp edges. That is to say: Please don’t make The Legend of Zelda just another Minions movie!
This whole project really began a few months ago, when I watched Ridley Scott’s Legend for the first time. My podcast co-host and I were planning our next miniseries for our show Eye of the Duck, and I’d been curious about the dark fantasy movies of the 1980s. Five minutes into Legend, I could already tell we were going to devote the next weeks and months of our podcast (and our lives!) to this film and all the others like it.
Released in 1985, Legend is most famous for Tim Curry’s portrayal of the devil, who now might as well be the definitive movie Satan (though in the film he’s simply called “Darkness”). The film is a dark, windswept, glitter-dusted hallucination, an experience so disorienting that Gene Siskel said it was like “recalling a bad dream” (he hated it). It’s also rumored to have inspired the creation of the first Zelda game, though that’s almost certainly impossible, since they were in production at the exact same time. I can understand the suspicion that Legend and Zelda may somehow be blood-related, though. The film lives in this uncomfortable space between a hack-and-slash epic and a surrealist horror film about the terrors of growing up and living in a world where, whether we like it or not, darkness always exists alongside the light. Also, there are fairies! Sound familiar?
Like the best of the dark fantasy movies of that era, the Zelda games are not afraid to take us to uncomfortable places. For decades now, the games have explored difficult themes, like the tragic loss of innocence in Ocarina of Time or, of course, the ticking clock of the apocalypse in Majora’s Mask. It’s the franchise’s unique combination of thematic gloominess and wild, uninhibited fantasy that reminds me so much of Scott’s Legend. And as I began to explore other films from the ’80s dark fantasy movement, I became convinced there was a Zelda movie hidden in the decade somewhere. So I tried to find it.
These movies contain the exact sort of unbridled creative electricity that courses through the entire Legend of Zelda series. Yes, there are swords, castles, horses, and scary monsters. But it’s more than that. Unburdened by the demands of today’s cinematic universe-building, movies like Conan the Barbarian, Highlander, and The Neverending Story were free to really take some swings. These had the benefit of coming out in the wake of Star Wars and well before Jurassic Park, when the concept of the “blockbuster” was still quite new, and directors were being given the resources to match Star Wars’ success — but nobody quite knew for sure how to make a movie into a billion-dollar enterprise (adjusted for inflation, of course).
So that’s how we end up with so many wonderfully bizarre attempts at capturing Star Wars’ magic. The Jim Henson Company tried both a super dark muppet movie, The Dark Crystal, and a goofy, weirdly sexual pseudo-musical, Labyrinth. There’s Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer (made by many of the same people who made Star Wars), a hardcore sword-and-sorcery film with a practically made dragon that’s breathtaking. And later in the decade we get cult favorites like The Neverending Story, a portal fantasy that teaches kids to read… or die! Some other less-famous gems are The Company of Wolves, a kind of perverted, Freudian Little Red Riding Hood, and Return to Oz, which asks, “What if The Wizard of Oz was a total nightmare?”
When it comes to the value of darkness in kids films, I often think about what director and legendary puppeteer Frank Oz said about longtime collaborator Jim Henson: “He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” And after watching the best of the ’80s dark fantasy movement, I have to agree with him — our current fantasy movies are too safe. What lessons are there for children to learn in the The Super Mario Bros. Movie, other than “it’s cool to be Mario”? There are no hard truths in The Rise of Skywalker, or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and the list goes on. It’s not about traumatizing children with kids movies, but it’s like Darkness says in Legend: “What is light without dark?”
I hope my Zelda videos represent — no, celebrate! — the ’80s dark fantasy movement. And I deeply hope Nintendo and Universal look to that era as they plan out what will likely be another world-dominating movie adaptation. But just in case they need a refresher… I wrote a dark fantasy Zelda movie myself! It’s called A Link to the Lost Age, and the whole story treatment (with some awesome art by my talented brother Vince) can be found here. The PDF is 40 pages long, but the pitch is simple. It’s just three words: old man Link. And yes, there’s a role for an aging Demon King Ganon, too, if Tim Curry is interested…
Legend is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu. Conan the Barbarian is streaming on Netflix. Highlander is streaming on Prime Video, Peacock, or for free with ads on Crackle, Freevee, Plex and The Roku Channel. The Neverending Story is streaming for free with a library card on Hoopla, and available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu. The Dark Crystal is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu. Labyrinth is streaming on Hulu. Dragonslayer is streaming for free with ads on Pluto TV, for free with a library card on Kanopy, or available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu. The Company of Wolves is streaming on Shudder and AMC Plus, or for free with ads on Kanopy. Return to Oz is streaming on Disney Plus.