From Middle-earth to Sweet Tooth: Why New Zealand is a Fantasyland display
Dr Alfio Leotta asks if New Zealand’s popularity as a location for the international production of fantastic screens is a symptom of an identity crisis or simply a testament to the magical nature of the country
The new Netflix series Sweet tooth is the latest in a long line of fantastic movies and TV shows shot in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Sweet tooth, based on a DC comic book series of the same title, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a pandemic known as ‘the sick’. The spread of the deadly virus coincides with the appearance of “hybrids,” a new breed of half-human, half-animal children who are believed to be somehow linked to the emergence of the pandemic.
The plot revolves around Gus, a deer boy raised in peaceful isolation inside Yellowstone National Park by his father, who feared both the effects of the pandemic and widespread social hostility towards hybrids. After his father’s death, Gus sets out on a quest to find his mother through post-apocalyptic America with the muscular wanderer Jepperd, encountering a series of enemies along the way.
In order to make this verdant, overgrown version of the United States, the show was shot around Otago, Waikato, and Auckland, where the local Rainbow’s End theme park also served as the “Animal Army” headquarters.
According to executive producer Susan Downey, New Zealand was seen as the perfect place for production from the start: “We talked about it very early in the process because we were like, ‘We have to find a place that has a genre. from American fairy tale. Feel’.”
Likewise, co-executive producer Amanda Burrell attributed the scenic beauty of the country to the producers’ choice: “We knew what Sweet tooth was, but being in New Zealand made it clear to us. The magical beauty of New Zealand is from another world.
In the early 2000s, New Zealand rose to prominence around the world by establishing itself as the fantasy world of Middle-earth in Sir Peter Jackson’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy and since then a large number of fantastic international productions, including Chronicles of Narnia cinema, Bridge to Terabithia, Avatar, The Hobbit trilogy and Pete’s dragon, were shot and produced in the country.
But even before the international success of the Lord of the Rings, New Zealand had provided locations for fantastic movies and TV shows such as willow (1988), Hercules: the legendary voyages (1993-1999) and Xena: warrior princess (19992003).
Start your day with
a curation of our top
stories in your inbox
Start your day with a curation of
our best stories to your inbox
READ TODAY’S NEWSLETTER
READ TODAY’S NEWSLETTER
So why is New Zealand such a popular place for international fantastic screen productions?
The availability and easy access to a wide variety of spectacular natural places capable of substituting for the pre-industrial fantastic universes is an obvious answer to this question. And yet there are a number of other economic, industrial and cultural factors that should not be underestimated.
First, New Zealand is able to provide a relatively large pool of qualified English speaking actors and teams. Eighty percent of the cast and 95 percent of the team members Sweet tooth were New Zealanders and three of the episodes were directed by Kiwi filmmakers Robyn Grace and Toa Fraser.
Fantasy is one of the more expensive genres to produce, as it often requires the creation of intricate sets, makeup, props, and special effects. The financial incentives provided by the New Zealand government, which offers a 20% cash back on qualifying local expenses, are particularly attractive for big-budget international productions.
Likewise, the absence of cinema unions, thanks to the controversial ‘Hobbit Law’ passed by then Prime Minister Sir John Key in 2010, makes life for big companies such as Warner Bros. and Netflix (the producers of Sweet tooth), much easier.
The history of fantasy cinema as a genre is linked to technological innovations in the field of special effects. Since the 1990s companies like Weta in Wellington have been able to provide special effects for large scale productions such as Xena and the Lord of the Rings. While initially, Weta’s main competitive advantage over its North American counterparts was the low cost of the special effects it could produce, since the Lord of the Rings it has gained an international reputation for the development of advanced technologies, which in turn has attracted and made possible fantastic large-scale productions such as King Kong, Avatar and The Hobbit.
New Zealand’s popularity as a location for fantastic on-screen stories, however, cannot be fully explained by mere factors of production. One could argue that New Zealand’s colonial history and its geographic location played a crucial role in facilitating the country’s multiple transformations into various imaginary lands.
For many international viewers, before Lord of the Rings, New Zealand was as fantastic and mysterious a land as Middle-earth. Likewise, it was the country’s physical remoteness from the centers of the Western world (mainly the United States and the United Kingdom) that made possible the development of colonial fantasies about the country.
The rhetoric of the settlers who defined New Zealand as a “divine zone” or “the land of the golden age” confused notions of familiarity and exoticism, of purity and abundance, which in turn indicated the utopian character. from the country.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, New Zealand was built as a Promised Land, “a better Britain” that could offer future British settlers the chance of a new life. From this point of view, the use of the local landscape as a versatile and transposable “otherness” in countless fantastic productions is a corollary of the same colonial logic which conceived the country as the new utopian version of places which already existed elsewhere.
So if Aotearoa becomes ‘New Zealand’, Christchurch the quintessential English city, and Dune in the Pacific version of Edinburgh, it makes sense that contemporary New Zealand continues to transform into fantastic places like Narnia, the Middle-earth or a post-apocalyptic American Midwest.
Is this the symptom of an identity crisis or rather a testament to the magical nature of the country? Hard to say, but for now we can feast our eyes on the beautiful world of Sweet tooth knowing that it is a bit ours too.