Fantasy as a genre is varied; it can encompass tales of love, tales of a small group of heroes saving the whole world, or tales of young characters leaning an important lesson. It can encompass both comedy and tragedy and every point on the spectrum in between, and everything from the epic to the bizarre.
But because of this breadth of the genre, selecting films from within it that should not be missed is difficult. I have presented here some of my favourites, films which are the epitome of fantasy and which showcase the very best of the genre. This list is not definitive, and I will almost certainly write another with some more examples of great fantasy films in the future. But for now, here are five great fantasy films that really shouldn’t be missed:
Lord of the Rings
Since everyone expected it, I’ll put this first. As an adaption of the books, the films are masterful – it captured the wonder of the world, the struggles of the characters and the general epicness of the quest perfectly. Elements, such as Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire were omitted when they failed to serve the narrative the film presented, and while the book’s die-hard fans might feel this corrupted the films, I feel these omissions trimmed it down and tightened the story up – though it was still very long.
Lord of the Rings shows what is possible in fantasy films in the twenty-first century, if the budget is big enough and the writing, direction and acting are up to par. It shows the depth of cultures that can be portrayed if you know where to look – the horse designs everywhere in Rohan, the immaculate but hollow feeling of Gondor’s throne room. It shows that characters can have great depth and very human hopes and fears even in the midst of an epic tale. And it shows how well film adaptions can be done.
Fantasia is a film without words, which itself is an achievement, yet it still gets across this tale through animation and music alone. It has elements of traditional fantasy such as the fairies spreading fairy-dust and dancing along to the music at the start and the sinister, devil-like creature seen at the end. It is a warning about messing with what you don’t understand, and also a very human message not to take shortcuts in what you have to do, and as such as a triumph of storytelling.
It is also iconic. The broom brushing, flooding scene it is best remembered for was recently imitated in the 2010 film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with Nicholas Cage, and elsewhere in popular culture.
Fantasia is a film which has had massive impact upon the fantasy that followed, on the imagery we are now familiar with, and on the success of the Disney studios. It also ingeniously used classical music from the likes of Bach and Beethoven to tell the story.
Not bad from a film which is now 72 years old.
The NeverEnding Story
This is one of those films that crops up on TV occasionally, especially around Christmas. It’s a story about a story and about how easy it is to be caught up in a good book. It panders to the secret wishes I’m sure quite a lot of us have – that we could step into the worlds we’re reading about and help he heroes and join in on the adventure.
It’s a world full of magic and full of life and at the same time full of threat, in which strange creatures may help or hinder the hero, and in which the very world around Atreyu crumbles and falls apart, leaving nothing but lifeless rocks floating in space.
Starring David Bowie as the creepy Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly as heroine Sarah, Labyrinth has become a cult classic. It’s got some fun and strange creatures, and some that are somewhat disconcerting. Nevertheless, it’s a fun if frequently cheesy adventure with a catchy song or two in there and David Bowie looking even more disturbing than normal. Good times, though perhaps hold off watching it if you’re under 13.
The Princess Bride
This is a fairly simple story with some familiar tropes and archetypes and a hefty serving of the bizarre. It’s got a giant, a swordsman, a prince, and a pirate, a battle of wits, rodents of unusual size and a tale of true love. It owes its position as a timeless classic to the charm and humour that is woven through it, and the way it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is a film full of silliness and over the top characters, done right.
While the main cast have their moments of humour and some great moments of characterisation, the funniest bits come from the cameos, Miracle Max and his wife and the Impressive Clergyman with his speech impediment, and even the minister with the gate key trying to bluff the heroes.
The Princess Bride is an endearing and funny film of love winning through against the odds.
Edit: I have written a second article on this topic here.