My Favorite Fantasy Films
The hardest thing to accomplish in the various fields of art, I believe, is to successfully evoke a mood. Conveying information in a clear and easy-to-understand manner is simple enough; any class on journalism or technical writing can teach you how. But to evoke a mood, ah, there’s the rub. And it’s one reason why I believe so many fantasy films are—not to put too fine a point on it—dreck. It’s difficult enough to create a specific feeling in your audience when you’re dealing with familiar elements set in the real world. Switch over to an imaginary setting with imaginary rules and you compound that difficulty tenfold.
All of which is to say, there really aren’t that many fantasy films that I like, or that I feel actually work as fantasy. Nevertheless, there are a few (in no particular order):
1. Dungeons & Dragons (2000) . . . Ha! No. Just messing with you. Seriously, don’t watch this. 0/10
2. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Jean Cocteau’s take on this classic fairytale is one of the first and best fantasy films. It perfectly captures the mood, along with a wonderful sense of otherworldliness. 10/10
3. Macbeth (1971) Roman Polanski’s infamous version of Shakespeare’s play is nearly devoid of magic, aside from the three witches’ prophesizing, but the movie still has the feel of a fantasy. One wouldn’t be surprised to encounter a dragon curled up beneath a hill in this film, and it wouldn’t be a nice dragon, either. In many ways, this Macbeth, captures the dread and horror of Beowulf better than any of the actual adaptations of Beowulf itself. 10/10
4. Throne of Blood (1957) Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth. The beginning, with the witch in the forest, is incredibly eerie and atmospheric. Also noteworthy as the film that caused Toshiro Mifune to stop working with Kurosawa, because Kurosawa insisted on shooting at him with real arrows during one scene. 10/10
5. A Little Princess (1995) This might seem like an odd choice, but trust me, it perfectly embodies the feel of a classic fairytale. I totally love it. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who went on to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. 9/10
6. Conan the Barbarian (1982) How could I not? It’s the epitome of sword & sorcery. The beginning is an awesome example of pure filmmaking, although the latter third sags. Noteworthy for having one of the best soundtracks of all time (I would have loved for Basil Poledouris to have composed the music for Eragon). 8/10
7. Dune (1984) Okay, so it has its flaws, and it messed up some things from the book, and it’s technically sci-fi, buuuuut . . . I dare you to find a film that better captures that epic feel that so many fantasy series strive for. Plus, it does the young hero journey better than any other film out there, aside from perhaps the original Star Wars trilogy. 8/10
8. Corpse Bride (2005) Mood? Check. Music? Check. Charming? Check. Tingles down the spine at the ending? Check. Criminally underrated? Check. 9/10
9. The 13th Warrior (1999) Is it good? Heck no. Is it entertaining? Heck yeah. For my money, the best adaptation of Beowulf out there. Another great soundtrack, this time by Jerry Goldsmith. 7/10
10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Not a children’s movie, even though the main character is a young girl. Dark fantasy at its best. And that ending . . . 9/10
11. Beetlejuice (1988) More fun than it has any right to be. One of the few comedic fantasies in existence. Two big tentacles up. 10/10
12. Excalibur (1981). A bit of an odd feel at times, but has a great cast, and one of the best uses of Siegfried’s funeral theme from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The only fantasy film I can think of that properly deals with the traditional relationship between the well-being of the king and the health of his land. A particular favorite of mine. 8/10
13. The Wizard of Oz (1939) Those singing guards with the pounding of the feet and the smashing of the spears. And those monkeys! Those monkeys! . . . If you haven’t seen this, really? 10/10
14. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) Despite popular opinion, I quite liked this (it was certainly better than the first one). It’s surprisingly bloody for a young adult film, and—I think—has one of the best swordfights in fantasy at the end. If you view it as more of a war film than a Narnia film, it holds up surprisingly well. 8/10
15. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) Pure poetry. I’m scared to watch this again because it had such an effect on me the first time. More than most so-called fantasy films, it captures the bittersweet feel of the best imaginative fiction. 10/10
16. Brazil (1985) Original ending only. You can argue whether this is fantasy or not. I’d say it is. Dystopian before dystopias were popular, and structured like an ancient myth. (If you want to have fun, compare the beats of the plot to the original Star Wars trilogy.) The dark side of the hero story. One of my top ten favorite films. 10/10
17. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) What?! Don’t look at me like that! It’s fantasy! And it’s good! And that moment when the Viking ship pulls up and then carries them across the lake still sends chills down my spine. Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time! 10/10
18. Spirited Away (2001) It’s Miyazaki, which means it’s magic. One of the best dragons ever. One of the best fairytales ever. Go see it. Now. Only watch the subtitled version. 10/10
19. My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Miyazaki again. Genius. Gentle. Wonderful. Perfect. 20/10
20. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Miyazaki. The closest thing to Dune out there, only, perhaps, better. Sci-fi? Pshaw. Fantasy. Love it. 10/10
21. The Witches (1990) Now this will give you nightmares as a kid. A great Roald Dahl adaptation. 8/10
22. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) What’s not to like? Music! Magic! Important life lessons! The need to kill Santy Claus!
23. Mary Poppins (1964) It may not have dragons, but it has Mary Poppins herself and that’s more than enough. The movie is full of wonderful moments, but I think my favorites are (1) when they climb the steps of smoke into the sky and (2) the song, “Feed the Birds”. Besides, as everyone knows, Mary Poppins is actually a Time Lord (that or god, according to Alan Moore). 10/10
As you can see, my definition of fantasy includes more than just the epic stuff. There are a few other films I would have liked to include (such as Amélie) that feel like fantasies, but since they don’t include any actual fantastical elements (i.e. magic, dragons, etc.) I didn’t feel as if they fit in here. The same is true for movies like Dark City, which would more rightfully go on a list of my favorite sci-fi films.
Lastly, an honorable mention to Dragonslayer for having one of the greatest dragon names ever: Vermithrax Pejorative.