A while ago I said that fantasy's becoming this catch-all category for science-fiction that can't be clearly defined. If it's not horror or spacey-tech stuff, it goes into the fantasy category. Unfortunately, when people think of fantasy, the first thing they think of is Lord of the Rings. Swords and sorcery. Dwarves and elves. Rugged heroes and dark villains.
And that's as it should be.
But instead, I've got superheroes, talking toys, vampire goth romance, and steampunk being shoved into the same genre. So I've got Big Fish and Groundhog Day in the same lists as the movies with dragons and swords. That ain't right. So here's my top ten list of fantasy movies that are ACTUALLY fantasy.
Now on this list, you won't see Shrek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. Harry Potter has become its own entity, like Michael Jackson. You can't judge it because there's no precedent for the level of fame it's gotten. People worshipped him as a god. Harry Potter has it's own theme park now. And they haven't even finished filming all the movies. And putting LOTR on the list would be like making a list of sci-fi movies and putting Star Wars at the top. Well, duh. You've already seen that list. Shrek is a parody of the fantasy genre. That's like saying The Naked Gun was a great cop movie because it made fun of cop movies. We're looking for dyed-in-the-wool Fighter and Black Mage scenarios.
Dragonslayer - I didn't include this because it's a pretty bad movie, but it's deep with swords & sorcery. The stop-motion dragon's kinda neat. And it's another 80's fantasy film, but it doesn't hold a candle to its contemporaries. It suffers from "80's movie with a 70's mentality" syndrome. It reminds me of the crappy novels you see on Good Show Sir.
Army of Darkness - I didn't include this because A) It's a sequel to two horror movies, and it retains elements of that. B) The fantasy elements aren't really there. It contains shotguns, cars, and cyborg hands constructed by blacksmiths. It's more like steampunk in that way. C) It doesn't take itself too seriously, to a point where it can't be called a serious movie. It's more like a comic book if it was designed by pubescent boys.
Monty Python & the Holy Grail - It's a spoof of fantasy films. And like I mentioned about The Naked Gun, it doesn't count if it's a self-referential parody. But it's an awesome movie, and still stands up as being hilarious. Ni!
10. Dragonheart (1996)
Starring Dennis Quaid & Sean Connery
Dragonheart premiered in a time when there was very little in the way of fantasy. Lord of the Rings was years off and CG had led to science fiction films taking top dollar, like ID4. No one wanted to see anything in the past. They wanted to look to the future, as one does in a time of progress. Then you had realistic action films like The Rock and Mission:Impossible. It was the year Tom Cruise could do no wrong, as Jerry Maguire was also released. The only movie in the same year besides this that could be considered fantasy was Kazaam. Nuff said.
So Dragonheart was a cool drink of water in the middle of the desert. It's the best dragon movie that I can think of, but I haven't seen How to Train Your Dragon yet, so don't quote me on that (I heard it was good). The film does an excellent job with providing a classic middle age environment, where everyone's dressed in drab clothing, kings rule the roost, and everyone's got a sword. It's kind of a buddy picture, where the last dragon and the last dragon slayer hook up for mutual benefit, learning about each other along the way.
Unfortunately, while the plot is good, it's also cheesy and predictable. The humor is trying to hard to be funny. Although some of the circumstances are amusing (a Mexican stand-off in a dragon's mouth) it's also juvenile (using snot rockets to light a fire). And while a lot of people praised Sean Connery's voice acting, I found it distracting. His voice did not fit the character. James Bond is a dragon? No. And unfortunately, the one dragon is the only fantasy element we get in this world.
However, as far as a high fantasy movie goes, this one's a good one. It's got a lot of heart (wait a minute... oooh, I get it now).
9. Legend (1986)
Starring Tom Cruise & Mia Sara
I'm only putting this so low because I've only seen it once--sometime in college on the SciFi channel (back before they only ran crappy CG movies like Uber-Bear vs. Super-Dove). But I remember it was awesome, like A Midsummer Night's Dream meets Paradise Lost. It has a great dreamy quality to it. All the actors are great for their roles. Mia Sara (the girl from Ferris Bueller's Day Off who Ferris totally did not deserve) already has that fantasy quality to her--the lazy, sleepy eyes, the soft hair, the creamy skin. Tom Cruise is already halfway to being an elf. And Tim Curry is so otherworldly, he can't help but play roles like Dr. Frank N. Furter, Hexxus, a NY hotel clerk (Home Alone 2), and the devil.
Basically, what happens is someone kills a unicorn and kidnaps a princess. I think it's Satan (he's not really Satan, but he might as well be). And Cruise-olas must venture to get her back, joining a party of elves and dwarves, and getting some upgrades in armor (gee, what does this sound like?). The devil hits on the princess. Then Cruise stabs him with a unicorn horn (called an Alicorn--the more you know).
I don't think the story's terribly great, it just plods along. But the make-up makes the movie. And it's directed by Ridley Scott, who's fresh off of Blade Runner and Alien. It's all about a young man transforming into a hero, shedding his childish ways. The other great thing is that the princess, while being relegated to a standard damsel-in-distress role, does at least do some standing up for herself, especially taking a risk that would save her skin. I really need to re-Netflix this one.
8. Troll (1986)
Starring Noah Hathaway (Atreyu from The Neverending Story) and Michael Moriarty
This is one for the people who like a little horror in their fantasy. It was marketed as a horror movie, but it's still got it all for the fantasy lover. I mean granted, it's probably one of the top bad movies of all time (rrrrrrat-burgers!), but it's so fun to watch, especially with a buzz. I love bad 80's horror movies. I love the bad make-up and the attempted gross-out scares that never work and the bad acting and the contrived plots. It might not be for you, but it is for me.
A troll in an apartment basement kidnaps a little girl and uses her as a disguise to convert an apartment and its eccentric tenants into a fairy forest populated with boglins. Said little girl is part of a family that just moved in and is now sharing a building with Swinging Sonny Bono (in full mustache glory), the shell-shocked veteran, Eunice the retired warrior-woman who's this movie's Yoda, and a young and nubile Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who gets turned into a naked, ivy-covered tree nymph. Bam!
The best part is how schizophrenic the movie is. In one minute it's a horror film with icky make-up guys. Then it's a comedy as we go into the "it's a mad house! A maaaad house!" scene during movie day. And then there's a touching scene where the little girl/troll befriends a midget who works in the same building. Confused by his stature, she invites him to dinner with the family. He later confesses that he's dying. The troll uses his powers to transform him into a hobgoblin handpuppet. He emerges from the tree stump, wet and confused, as the troll says in his gravelly voice "Welcome, brother elf". It's actually a suprisingly touching scene.
Then it's a Karate Kid movie where the warrior woman is telling him about the backstory, and the goblin war that took away her love. And finally, it's a musical. There's a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment where all the boglins, plus Eunice's cute pet mushroom, start singing this weird choral in Troll-ese. FOR NO REASON.
It's a classic bad 80's movie. It's really worth a look. It's got everything. Especially the part where everyone is inches from the doorway out of fantasy land and trips over NOTHING just as they're about to get away.
7. The Black Cauldron (1985)
Starring Grant Bardsley and Susan Sheridan
This is the darkest Disney film of all. The pinnacle of the Disney + Don Bluth relationship, before they split apart. Afterwards, Disney continued their downward spiral into mediocrity (The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company) and Don Bluth made An American Tail, the first animated movie to outperform a Disney animated movie on an opening weekend.
But this isn't about that. It's about a farmboy who has a pig with psychic powers. Stay with me on this. The pig gets kidnapped by the bad guy--the Horned King. Yeah, whereas other bad guys like Scar and Ursula looks like plushies, this guy looks like he came from Gary Gygax's nightmare. He wants to use the pig to find out where the Black Cauldron (name drop!) is, because he can use it to make an ever-growing army of the undead. Sweet. The pig escapes, but the farmboy doesn't. Said farmboy meets up with a princess and an old minstrel, finds a magic sword, and leaves in hopes of finding and destroying said Black Cauldron.
And along the way we meet the very merchandisable Gurgi (which is some sort of annoying monkey-dog that sounds like Curious George), Fflewddur Fflam the Unpronounceable, and Princess Elionwy, the BEST DISNEY PRINCESS ever. Seriously, she's the one that gets the farmboy out of prison, she's cute, and she's not romantically obsessed with the male lead. Disney, why hath thou forsaken her?
And for those of you still giving me a wary eye, it's got no songs. Unfortunately, it's short running time, and the fact that its trying to combine the storylines of two books at the same time, mean that you lose out on things like characterization, and a lot of things seem glossed over. But it's got what a good fantasy story needs--a young hero, a fancy sword, a quest, fairies & mystical companions, and a deus ex machina that doesn't run on batteries. It's a good animated, dramatic movie, with better production values than The Hobbit or its like.
6. The Princess Bride (1987)
Starring Cary Elwes and Robin Wright
This one is for all tha ladeez out there. I haven't met a girl yet who doesn't love The Princess Bride. The humor, the romance, the noble knight coming for his lady, the pseudo-feminism of the aptly named Buttercup.
Actually, the fantasy elements are pretty few here. The most fantastic element is the R.O.U.S.'s and Shrieking Eels who have 2 seconds of screen time. The magic is minimal, relegated to special effects miracles. The swordplay is more like a dance than a fight for life. But that doesn't negate the world.
Instead of fantasy giants, you have real giants. And instead of wizards you have "miracle men". But at least all these characters fit well into this environment. There are evil kings, embittered men attempting to seek noble vengeance, and pirates.
It's like "near-fantasy". There's enough here for a decent story that's light on the fantastic elements, but heavy on the characterization and plot. Which is good. It's probably one of the reasons its so universally appealing. But for all the great stuff that's in the movie, the book expands on it all with the same tongue-in-cheek tone. If you haven't read it, you're missing out on one of the most underrated fantasy novels ever. I highly recommend it.
5. The Last Unicorn (1982)
Starring Mia Farrow and Alan Arkin
This is one I saw later in life, and I'm sorry I missed it... or maybe not. Maybe it's a "Guess You Had to Be There Movie" like Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer was for me and my sister.
It starts out with a trippy introduction as a rastafarian butterfly sets the scene. He tells the ditzy unicorn, who probably slept through the My Little Pony auditions, that all the remaining unicorns have disappeared. Rather than try and get on the endangered species list for the subsequent book tour and press junket, she starts off to find out what happened. This leads her to a circus that kidnaps her (kind of like that one episode of Tiny Toons). The incomptent magician assistant (who appears to be Jewish) sets her free. They join some other people and finally reach their destination. Unfortunately, said destination is guarded by a giant Red Bull. Not the energy drink, although this animal appears to be the end result of drinking too many. (It does have taurine in it).
Bubbe the magician accidentally transforms the unicorn into an equally vapid blonde maiden, and the Monster loses interest. Their party arrives at a castle where the unicorn-human falls in love with the prince. But his father, the king, is the one responsible for kidnapping all the unicorns. Where are they? The king has them trapped (I forget why, I think he's selfish). And while the unicorn has to deal with being human and falling in love, forgetting why she came there in the first place, a terrible secret lies under the castle.
Also, there's a tree with huge boobs.
The thing that's refreshing about this story is that there's a girl in the main lead. This doesn't exactly stop her from acting like a simpering, lovesick fool like all the other damsels, but it's a start. Plus, midway through the movie, she turns into a human, which takes away some of her fantasy-ness. I guess asking for a movie about the last unicorn with the last unicorn in it was asking too much. She had to turn into a waify human. And not only does her body change, she also has to have the human emotions of regret and love. Heavy stuff.
And apparently, the unicorn has no real problem with the transition. At least Ariel was cutely awkward when she got her legs. And she was going from one lower limb to two. How does it feel going from four to two?
Schmendrick the magician's voice acting gives a unique performance. And the other actors you rarely see in animation--Christopher Lee, Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges. You won't find them in Disney films (yes, I know Christopher Lee was in Kingdom Hearts II. Doesn't count). They use inflections that don't sound like typical reading, like celebrities after a lot of caffiene. The music is fantastic because it's done by America ("Horse with No Name") and it's incredibly catchy and moving for a movie with not terribly large production values.
The movie's not great. There's a lot more female fans than males. Which is fine. But what I like about the movie was that it was something trying to be different. A rarity in our time as it was in theirs. A female fantasy story, instead of some man on a quest with a sword and a dame. It's a kid's movie, but the art direction, music, plus the fact that it's based on a Peter S. Beagle novel, makes this a thumbs up.
4. Stardust (2007)
Starring Charlie Cox and Claire Danes
Anyone who reads this blog knows I love me some Neil Gaiman. This is based off one of his earlier works. He called it his attempt at a fairy tale. What I like about it is it contains the standard fantasy tropes, but plays with them as a kid might, adding in things that would just be cool and funny. Like the royal brothers that keep killing each other off in order to inherit the crown.
Basically, what happens is a young boy goes beyond the safe borders of his town to fetch a fallen star for a girl he's trying to impress. Much to his surprise, said falling star is actually a girl. And this fallen star is quite the object of covetation. Not only does the guy want it, but some witches want it to preserve their youth. And the fatricidal brothers want it because it probably knows where the plot coupon for their ascension to the throne is.
It's sort of a fantasy and sort of a fairy tale. It deviates from the expected plotlines in wonderful ways. I love it when comic book writers become novel writers because this unique fantasy is often the result. A lot of people compared it to The Princess Bride and I tend to agree. In a good way. It uses special effects correctly, in ways that adhere to what the story needs, so that it's not overflowing with trendy CG. The humor and irony is spot on so that you're never quite sure what's going to happen. It's got swordplay, but no dragons. But the steampunk makes up for that.
It's not a complex plot. It's predictable, but where else are you going to see a cross-dressing pirate Robert DeNiro.
3. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Starring Noah Hathaway (Harry Potter Jr. from Troll) and Barret Oliver
The great thing about this movie is that it's fantasy without the standard fantasy tropes. Instead of dragons and elves, you have Rock Biters, Racing Snails, and a Nighthob (sort of a crazy goblin who rides a bat). Admittedly, most of the neat stuff they use is placed in the beginning for set-up, and you never see it again (except the Rock Biter who has the saddest scene in any of these movies as he laments the loss of his friends. Can you say "Oscar Snub"?)
Instead of being a medieval fantasy, it has a Germanic feel to it (and it should, it's a German movie). There's no sword, but there are magical elements. And half-naked statues. And a sort of a dragon, which looks more like a dog. That always confused me as a kid. But he was my favorite character because he was so cute.
The weird thing is, the plot is easy to explain, but the concept isn't. The movie is a book within a movie about the book which is the book which is the movie except for the movie that's not the book and oh no I've gone cross-eyed. (BTW, Mr. Koreander is the world's worst customer service representative)
But in essence we have a quest (what else?) and a young, unassuming boy to accomplish that quest.
What follows is something not usually seen in most fantasy movies. The world is falling away into nothingness (having been consumed by said capital-'N' Nothingness). The lead character loses his horse due to depression. And he's constantly learning that whatever he has to do, he has no power to. He can't get to the Southern Oracle--it's 10,000 miles away. He can't get beyond the boundaries of Fantasia--it has no boundaries. He can't stop the world from being consumed by the Nothing because it's an unseeable force.
I was scared to death when he confront G'Mork (that's the wolf, right?). What chance does a ten-year-old boy have against a giant wolf. I say this because I know I would have 0 chance of living if I saw those glowing eyes staring at me from a cave. But I do like that Bastian was a sympathetic characrter, certainly relatable to me as well as a lot of peer geeks. And that the first thing he does, when he must use his wishes to restore a vast, magnificent empire, is to WREAK BLOODY VENGEANCE ON HIS BULLIES WITH A GIANT DRAGON. This movie is made of Germanic awesome.
One last note: that childlike empress was creepy. She looked like she was bald. She looked like a living doll.
2. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Starring some puppets
When I was a kid the only two movies I ever wanted to borrow from the library were Shari Lewis and The Dark Crystal. I like puppets.
Usually, Shari Lewis was available, while The Dark Crystal was not. That's because this movie is the shizznit. This movie showed kids things they'd never seen before, and never would see again. First, you've got the Jim Henson name. And Jim Henson equals Muppets. And Muppets are awesome no matter what (unless you mention "Muppets in Space"--don't ever talk to me about that atrocity). But finally--FINALLY--Jim Henson breaks out of the Kermit and Big Bird mold to bring you what human-controlled animatronics and special effects were made for--bringing us to another, fantastic world. A live-action movie where there are no humans.
Second, you've got some scary shit in this movie. The Skeksis which are gravelly-voiced vulture men with full detail (you even get to see one of them naked, eww). Crab/bug things breaking into a party with their horrible click-click-grunts. Aughra's disembodied eye. The cute little podlings turning into zombies as their life is sucked out. When the Skeksis emperor suddenly jumps up when one guy tries to take his scepter, that scared the shit out of me. And it doesn't help that he has such a painful, ragged death. And then he crumbles to dust.
And unlike The Neverending Story, these characters have a little more substance than the ones that are just pretty spectacles along the journey. Jen and Kira have a real relationship, and you know they have to get together at the end. But then, out of nowhere, she's stabbed in the back. And it's the most heart-wrenching thing ever, because you know it means there's going to be no more baby gelflings. The last hope for saving their race is gone. You can feel Jen's rage when, after he's worked so hard to get here, the thing he was doing it for is gone, and all he wants is to hurt the Skeksis back. That's the ironic thing, he accomplishes his noble mission with an ignoble purpose.
Yes, yes, I know that the Light Beings at the end bring her back, but I think that's cheap. It doesn't count. She's still dead in my mind.
This is about as close as we're going to get to a "Legend of Zelda" movie. The boy has pointy ears, plays a flute, rides a horse...thing, has a romantic interest in a girl who also has pointy ears. There's crystals. There's oracles. There's magic. There's weird little creatures, both good and bad. There's dramatic confrontations. Jen doesn't even need a sword.
1. Willow (1988)
Starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer
It just doesn't get any better than this. It's the Lord of the Rings trilogy before we had the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Also, it's only one movie. Ahem.
Everything here is authentic. The dwarves are actually dwarves. The dragons breathe fire. Women are warriors, witches, or mothers. And it has a fantastic cast of characters ranging from mini-people to ghostly fairies to swordsmen. And they interact with each other and have relationships. They bicker amongst each other and they do things that have consequences to those relationships. And in the meantime, we've just got one little guy, trying to save, not the world, but a baby (who will, by proxy, save the world). The best part is that you start in their world, so you get a great orientation to a small world.
The best thing about this movie is Warwick Davis. I've always admired him as an actor, and he's been able to do so much with his career, not despite his condition, but thanks to it. Plus he's a great actor. Unlike most of these other movies, Willow is a three-dimensional character. He has a family, he has ambitions, and he's got domestic problems. But all the characters in this movie are extremely likable. The washed-out swordsman Madmartigan, the Laurel and Hardy brownies, the hot swordswoman Sorsha, and the extremely evil Bavmorda who's the only woman I know who would kill a baby to ensure her power. Plus that's one cute baby.
Unlike The Princess Bride which makes fun of the romance and swords, this movie embraces it. Ron Howard direction + George Lucas story = win. And the best thing is this was before both of them became Hollywood gods. When people could still said "no" to them. It uses Star Wars special effects (including the first instance of CG morphing technology) to convey a swords and sorcery story. One with a lot of heart. So that makes it great for both women and men to curl up and watch.
Everyone complained that this movie was too dark for children, but the fact is children are perfectly capable of this level of maturity. In fact, we embrace it. The fact is you don't know what's scary for children. No one knows, and you shouldn't try and predict it. Things that you think wouldn't be scary end up terrifying. I was scared to death of the Poison Cackler in Fraggle Rock. And they only ever showed him once. It was the build-up that they keep saying he was the most terrifying thing ever encountered. Just his name sounds intimidating. Plus he's poisonous, and fraggle medical technology doesn't look the greatest. My wife won't watch The Wizard of Oz because she's scared of the flying monkeys.
Fear is a normal emotion, just like happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, anxiety, and all the others. Part of being a kid is being exposed to those emotions and learning to cope with them. Movies are a great, safe way to do that. That's the great thing about fantasy. It's fun for the single, the couple, and the family.