My Top 12 Fantasy Films
Anyone who's interviewed me (such as Gill Harvey-Bush, whose podcast will feature me on an upcoming episode) will know the story of how I became a film fan. My Dad is a lover of the fantasy genre, he and my brother devoured any fantasy novel which came their way, and the three of us would sit down to watch all the old seventies and eighties fantasy films on TV. I loved my childhood, and fantasy was a big part of it - but apart from a rant about the lack of new fantasy films in cinemas, I haven't really talked about 'the films which made me' much on my blog.
Recently, I watched the Netflix series Cursed - partly because I've had the time to watch a lot of TV this year, and partly because I knew a few people involved in the show, and I wanted to show it my support. The show had a few minor flaws, but I absolutely loved it. It was full of OTT cool characters, epic set design, desirable costumes and CGI magic: in a nutshell, it was my jam, and just what I needed during this scary and uncertain time.
So, for anyone else who feels the need to escape to a magical world right now (I expect there's a few of you out there), I thought it would be fun to spend my Saturday morning compiling a top ten list of recommended fantasy films.
I have actually given this topic a lot of thought over the last few weeks, because I thought it would be really hard for me to choose a top ten (I had to make it a top twelve, in the end!). So, in order to make things as simple as possible, I've set myself a few selection rules:
- I've only chosen films which take place in a magical realm, i.e. somewhere completely made-up, or a mythical version of the medieval past. Otherwise this opens me up to a huge list of fantasy films set in the modern day, such as Big Trouble in Little China, where heroes encounter magic on their doorstep. It also excludes Bright (although I probably wouldn't have included that anyway!) and, after a lot of thought, I've also decided to exclude Highlander.
- No superhero films, purely because there are so many of them that they've become a sub-genre of their own - although I was very tempted to include Black Panther on the list, and I very nearly broke my own rule by adding Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
- This list will only include live action films, much as I love classic Disney films like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, and Studio Gibli films like Spirited Away - arguably some of the best fantasy films on the planet. It also means that Shrek is excluded!
- No films set in space, otherwise we start too much of a debate of 'is it Fantasy, is it Sci-Fi?', which is an argument often used on Star Wars and space operas like Flash Gordon and The Fifth Element.
- And finally, no Conan films. Arnold Schwarzenegger genuinely punched a camel in the first film, and animal cruelty will not be supported by any list of mine!
So without further ado, here is my list, along with a few honourable mentions...
12) Excalibur (1981)
I couldn't write this list without including John Boorman's epic. Although it's a little too long for my tastes, this seminal fantasy film - starring a young Helen Mirren - is seen as the definitive adaptation of the Arthurian legend, and inspired generations of filmic creatives, including Adam Savage.
11) Hawk the Slayer (1980)
Let me be frank: Hawk the Slayer is not a good film. The storyline 'borrows' heavily from Seven Samurai, the soundtrack can only be described as 'Celtic disco', and the visual effects are some of the cheapest you'll ever see (the best example is glowing ping-pong balls representing magic orbs!). It's also one of my favourite films of all time, because it's one of the first fantasy films I ever saw, and it helped me to fall in love with the genre. Although I couldn't in all good conscience place it higher on the list, you won't regret watching it!
10) The NeverEnding Story (1984)
In all truth, I was never the biggest fan of The NeverEnding Story. I don't like films where kids 'save the day', because it seems unrealistic (yes, I'm aware that's a hypocritical thing to say when I love films about magic!), so I didn't watch The NeverEnding Story as much as other films on this list. But having watched it again recently, I was blown away by the spectacle of it all. There are so many practical effects and huge set pieces! It cost a fortune to make, but the world-building on show is some of the best in cinematic history, so this film deserves to be praised. And yes, as Stranger Things reminded us recently, the theme song is brilliant.
9) Labyrinth (1986)
One of two Jim Henson films on this list, and I know that many people would place Labyrinth in the number one spot. The 'bog of eternal stench' was never my sense of humour, but I love the coming-of-age themes and the incredible sets on display. David Bowie was, of course, iconic in this film - but he was always a man who barely had to breathe to be iconic. There's talk of doing a sequel and recasting the Goblin King, but I know there would be uproar if that happened.
8) Jason & the Argonauts (1963) / Clash of the Titans (1981)
Ray Harryhausen - the man who inspired hundreds of fantasy filmmakers, including Jim Henson, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson (more on him later) - had to be included on this list somewhere. His films may be a little bit slow-paced for modern tastes, but they are perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, and they always take me back to my childhood. After giving it lots of thought, I couldn't decide between two Harryhausen films to include on this list, so I gave the dual place to Jason & The Argonauts (the Children of Hydra scene is one of cinema's all-time greatest moments) and Clash of the Titans, which features some of the best stop-motion characters, including Pegasus and Medusa.
7) Dragonslayer (1981)
A lot of people haven't seen Dragonslayer, which always horrifies me, as this film is one of the three things which really made me fall in love with the fantasy genre (the other two being the aforementioned Hawk the Slayer, and Sam Neil's Merlin series). There is one main reason you should see this film: IT CONTAINS THE GREATEST ON-SCREEN DRAGON OF ALL TIME. That's no understatement. Vermithrax was brought to life using models and practical effects, and no CGI dragon has ever come close.
6) The Dark Crystal (1982)
Jim Henson's passion project Dark Crystal was always seen as too scary and, again, too slow for children - and it took me a long time to appreciate its mastery. But you just need to read the accompanying graphic novels to understand the incredible ideas and lore which went into building the world of Thra - it's almost biblical in proportions, and second only to Tolkein's Middle Earth. Dark Crystal's forest scene alone features more clever filmmaking techniques and creatures than most fantasy films in their entirety. I enjoyed 2019's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance even more, I genuinely believe it's one of the best TV shows ever made, and I was so gutted by Netflix's recent decision to cancel the series.
5) Legend (1985)
We've reached my top five, which was the hardest section of the list for me to choose: any of the films from 5-2 could've easily taken second place. Legend, directed by none other than Ridley Scott, and featuring a young Tom Cruise, is one of the greatest fantasy films ever made, and it features some of the best sets on this list. The strange continuity errors and wobbly unicorn horns stop the film from quite being perfect, but Tim Curry as a devil-like creature is one of cinema's most iconic villains.
4) Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
The most recent film on this list (and the only one not in the English language), Pan's Labyrinth isn't just one of the best fantasy films, it's one of the greatest films, period. I watched it during my first class at film school, and it introduced me to the work of director Guillermo del Toro - a fantasy genius who would later become one of my heroes. Pan's Labyrinth is darker in tone than most (maybe all) of the films on this list, and it isn't to everyone's taste for that reason, but it also features some of the most memorable cinematic monsters - that's no mean feat, bearing in mind all of the fantasy films which came before it.
3) Willow (1988)
Until The Lord of the Rings came along, Willow was the closest things fans had to a live-action Middle Earth movie, as it's heavily inspired by Tolkein's work (it was also partly filmed in New Zealand). George Lucas and Ron Howard were the masters of enjoyable family films in the 70s and 80s, and Willow is a brilliant, epic film as a result. Val Kilmer's Madmartigan stole the show, but this film also features my favourite cinematic fairies, all made without using CGI, which are definitely worth seeing.
2) The Princess Bride (1987)
The Princess Bride isn't the most epic film on this list (it's comparatively small in scale), and it doesn't feature quite as many magical characters, either. So why is it number two? Well, Princess Bride is just... brilliant. The script is razor-sharp, hilarious and full of memorable quotes, which helped to make it the cult classic it deserves to be. I'm also so proud of the fact that the film was shot near my home in the Peak District. No matter how many times I see this film, I always cheer during the showdown fight when Inigo Montoya repeats "hello, my name is Inigo Motoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
There's only one fantasy film I quote more...
1) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 - 2003) - yes, all three of them as one entry!
This was probably the most predictable entry on my list, as it's the saga which inspired me to want to become a filmmaker in the first place - but having seen it again recently, I genuinely believe that The Lord of the Rings films are the greatest fantasy films ever made. Nothing else quite matches the balance of epic fantasy battles - and fun for all the family - with incredibly quiet, moving character moments, a technique which represents Peter Jackson at his best.
Many people select the darker-toned The Two Towers as their favourite in the trilogy, and I agree that the battle of Helms Deep, and the stunning pieces introduced in the film's score when we reach Rohan, make it a must-see. But the second film also features the most 'made up', non-book-based material, and some of the scenes feel slightly like filler as a result.
My favourite will always be the closing chapter, The Return of The King, for its incredible scale and heartbreaking scenes, but I must acknowledge the way The Fellowship of the Ring masterfully introduced everyone to the trilogy's places and characters (it made stars of everyone on the cast, even the relatively unknown actors). It also features lots of smaller scenes which are mini storytelling masterclasses in themselves, such as the tense little scene with the collapsing stairwell inside Moria.
Let's just pretend that The Hobbit trilogy never happened...
As I said before, it was quite hard for me to compile this list, as I love so many fantasy films. So here's a list of honourable mentions, all of which I nearly included: Dragonheart, Ladyhawke, The Shape of Water, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, A Monster Calls (I REALLY wanted to include that one!), Stardust, Snow White and the Huntsman, Where The Wild Things Are, The Fountain, Tale of Tales, and The Wizard of Oz / Return To Oz (depending on your taste!)
I also need to give a special mention to one television series, Game of Thrones, because - last two seasons aside - it gave us one of the best fantasy pieces in recent years. If it was a film, it would be in the top five.
Whether or not you agree with my choices, I hope you enjoyed this list, and that it inspired you to have a fun movie night. Any of these films will help you escape for a few hours, in the way that only cinema can do; our industry may be struggling right now, but long may it continue to be a comfort for those facing dark days.
That's all for today, but I've got a few new blog posts planned for the near future, including another guest post, a potential 'stories from the set' entry, and the second part of my Hallowe'en watchlist, so stay tuned for those.