In my earlier article, Films every fantasy fan should see, I listed a few must-see fantasy movies and explained what makes them so essential. But I don’t feel five films is enough, so I am adding a few more.
I had this on video cassette as a child and it was my go-to film when I was ill or sad. It always cheered me up. As I got a bit older, jokes that had previously eluded me now left me sniggering sheepishly. It’s a film that has everything: a princess to rescue, a dragon, a tyrannical ruler, a big scary ogre and a talking animal sidekick. But it had fun with these elements, it twisted things around and made it all fresh and new and modern.
Fiona wasn’t the timid princess waiting to be rescued, as I’d seen in the older films, she was cool and capable and funny. Shrek himself isn’t a traditional hero, and his motivations are not the lofty chivalry of old, but the very sympathetic, very human, desire to be allowed to be who he wants to be without persecution or interference. Even with Lord Farquad you can see the motivations behind his ambition in the sense of inadequacy he feels as a result of his stature, the way he tries to hide it with full-sized leg armour when he’s riding a horse.
The film Shrek takes the old tropes and subverts them, presenting a story with elements of traditional feel-good fairy tales (the hero, after all, does eventually get the princess) and mixing in more modern attitudes and ideas.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
The tale of Robin Hood is one retold every few years in book, film or TV series and will probably never go away. Prince of Thieves is one that stands out. The more recent Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe as the titular hero is presented as a tale from English history, gritty and real, or at least possible. It is treated with seriousness and a certain bleakness. By contrast, Men in Tights starring Cary Elwes is an irreverent parody of the whole tale in its various forms (and in particular of Prince of Thieves). Prince of Thieves, with its cast list full of famous names from Brian Blessed and Alan Rickman to Morgan Freeman, Kevin Costner and Christian Slater, fits somewhere between these.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but is full of elements of fantasy: the creepy seer who (claims to) read the future in stones and strange concoctions; the princess-like Maid Marian almost doomed to marriage to the villain, and saved just in time by the hero; the strange foreigner avowed to save the life of the man who has saved his own. There is a balance between peril, silliness, ham and a little cheese, bringing together a very enjoyable (not to mention tasty) film.
What Miyazaki has done with Spirited Away is to give something which is familiar a fantasy twist. The bathhouse is part of Japanese culture, and even familiar to those in Western audiences with some knowledge of Roman society, or even Turkish baths. The bathhouse is also a business, with customers, workers and a boss at the top; certainly familiar. But then there’s everything else. Magical lanterns that light themselves, food that turns people into pigs, spirits, coal dust critters, sentient paper aeroplanes. It is a tale full of depth and wonder, half rooted in our own world, half in a world beyond our own knowing.
It is a beautiful story, and an odd one where sometimes the events don’t seem to tie together with Chihiro’s main quest, to save her parents, but that doesn’t matter. The film takes you along for a ride, showing the strangeness of the world, the breadth and depth of it, with some elements like the hopping lamp being reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
While differing in tone (and a few plot points) from the book by Neil Gaiman, this is nevertheless a fantastic film. It has a lighthearted, adventurous tone and some great moments of comedy (many of them thanks to British comedian Ricky Gervais and one short but brilliant performance by Mark Williams as a goat-turned-human innkeeper) It is an endearing film, full of wonder in the form of the amazing beings, places objects Tristan encounters, from the Babylon candle to the lightning-harvesting sky-ship.
Stardust is a film of adventure, a quest that begins simple but becomes so much more, a tale of love and overcoming evil and finding out truths. It is swashbuckling, funny and an awful lot of fun, and it looks utterly gorgeous.
What do you think is most memorable about these films? What other films should be included and why? What fantasy films don’t belong on such a list?