The 10 Best Fantasy Movies – and Why They Rock

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White in Peter Jac...

Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf

Like many writers of my generation, my first exposure to the fantasy genre was through films. I’ve previously told the story of how my father took me to see Conan the Barbarian when I was underage, and how this brought about an epiphany in my life. Ever since that first encounter, fantasy movies have helped to shape my imagination. When reflecting on the major milestones of my life, I often remember them in relation to the films that captured my attention during those years.

I recently asked our community members to compile a list of their favorite fantasy films.  And as usual, our members provided inspired and sometimes provocative responses. This prompted me to consider which fantasy films have had the greatest impact on my writing, and why they are so meaningful.

So without further ado, here is my personal list.

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride

I’ve always preferred to be totally immersed in a fantasy world. The narrative device used in this film, which periodically cuts to a contemporary grandfather reading a story to young Fred Savage, still jars me. Nonetheless, the fantasy sequences (which are the core of the film) are endlessly enchanting. The amazing fencing scene partially inspired me to take up the sport, and the music by Mark Knoffler (of Dire Straights fame) sets the tone perfectly. Perhaps the most influential aspect of this film on my own writing is the transformation undergone by the film’s hero. Ever since viewing this at the age of ten, I’ve been compelled to tell stories of transformation.

Legend

Legend

I recall seeing an interview in which the film’s director, Ridley Scott, expressed dissatisfaction with how it turned out. I can understand why he felt this way. The story itself is very simplistic and unoriginal. The characters are little more than fantasy archetypes. Yet despite these shortcomings, this film succeeds wildly on the level of sheer atmosphere. Never has a film created such a lush fantasy landscape, deeply enriched by Tangerine Dream’s hypnotic score. And Tim Curry is simply perfect as the embodiment of evil. Ridley Scott eventually released a director’s cut with a different score and an ambiguous ending. But trust me when I say that the theatrical version is infinitely better.

Excalibur

Excalibur

I was so young when I first saw this film that I couldn’t understand it. But that didn’t matter, as I was thoroughly entranced by the giant men on the screen who wore glistening, metal clothes. This film went on to inspire me to build a suit of plate armor when I was thirteen, which consumed a summer break. This was also my introduction to the Arthurian legend, as well as the music of Richard Wagner. Like Legend, Excalibur benefits from lush cinematography and a strong musical score. But it also features a young – and surprisingly yummy – Helen Mirren in a memorably wicked performance. This is still the definitive telling of the story of King Arthur.

Highlander

Highlander

Although it hasn’t aged well, I still love this movie. It has Queen music. It has Sean Connery. And most importantly, it has the Highlands of Scotland in their lustrous splendor. All of the flashbacks to medieval Scotland are amazing. The long stretches in 1980′s New York are nostalgically cheesy. Yet this movie has a kind of magic which transcends its many flaws. It’s unfortunate that a string of mediocre sequels went on to tarnish what could have been a promising franchise.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian

If there is one word to describe this film, it would be epic. Director John Milius took Robert E. Howard’s pulp tales of adventure, and weaved them into a philosophical treatise on the value of suffering. No, I’m not kidding. There are two key elements which have propelled this film to greatness. First, it has one of the greatest scores in all of cinema history. Composer Basil Poledouris was a genius, and it was his score which awakened my interest in classical music. Second, it stars James Earl Jones as a hippie cult leader modeled loosely on Jim Jones. His performance alone makes this film a classic.

The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior

When this movie opened in theaters it garnered poor reviews. My interest was piqued, however, when I read that it was based on Beowulf. Upon seeing it, something stirred inside of me. One of my buddies expressed it best when said that watching this film made him feel uber manly. Indeed. This is a movie that celebrates the art of being a badass. There is a lot of beer and swordplay, and no romance or any of that drivel. And the awesome Jerry Goldsmith score makes it all feel respectable.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This has always been my favorite film in the Harry Potter franchise. While the story is needlessly convoluted, this film benefits from a strong medieval sense. Hogwarts feels like a real castle, with ghostly knights riding through the halls. And best of all, John Williams has tweaked his classic score to make it sound like an authentic medieval piece. I only wish that later installments would have kept this variation of the Harry Potter theme, as it complements the material so beautifully.

Lord of the Rings Extended Edition Blu-Ray

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

What more needs to be said? Peter Jackson took a book which was deemed “unfilmable,” and transformed it into a cinematic masterpiece. While some unnecessary changes were made to the story, Jackson nonetheless succeeds in making Middle Earth into a real, living place. At times it feels more like a travel documentary than a fantasy movie, which isn’t a bad thing. This is Tolkien’s world as I always imagined it, more or less.  I never grow tired of watching these films.

The Sword and the Sorcerer

The Sword and the Sorcerer

Ever view this one? Probably not. It is a cheesy Conan rip-off with B movie sensibilities. Yet it is glorious in its audacity. The film’s unlikely hero is portrayed by Lee Horsely, who approaches the role with tongue in cheek bravado. It also stars Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court) as an ancient wizard who is in serious need of a face lift. What makes this fantasy movie stand out, though, is just how over-the-top it becomes. There is a sword with three blades. There is a banquet with a crucified prisoner looming over the tables.  And there is gratuitous, yet surprisingly tasteful sexuality. Somehow this all comes together and creates an inspired fantasy romp. Many low budget fantasy films were produced after the success of Conan, but The Sword and the Sorcerer is the best.

The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans

So what is an historical epic doing on a list of fantasy films?  Although it is set in colonial America, this is a fantasy story in it’s purest form. Like Legend and Excalibur, the magic of the forest is at the heart of this tale. It’s hero, Hawkeye, is a creature of the forest and the embodiment of its power. He can do things that no mortal being is capable of, yet when drawn into the web of civilization he becomes a victim of its corruption. Director Michael Mann portrays the forest as a gothic labyrinth filled with enchantment and wonder. In doing so, he captures the spirit of the original novel and the movement known as Romanticism, from whence it came. The epic score by Trevor Jones (Excalibur) only serves to highlight the majesty of this forgotten world.

So that’s my list, and now it’s your turn. Which films would you count as the best fantasy movies?

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Antonio del Drago

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

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54 comments
AlexGaginsky
AlexGaginsky

There's depressingly few Fantasy movies that are Really Good. There are LOTR/Hobbit franchise, Conan#1, Narnia#1, Pan's Labyrinth, Stardust, Harry Potter franchise and... and basically that's all. The oldies like Princess Bride and Legend are barely "nice", the likes of 13th warrior are pale, and the likes of Twilight saga are just plain awful.


It's easy to make a list of 30 to 50 brilliant Sci-Fi movies. But Fantasy masterpieces hardly can make up a Top Ten.

guest
guest

You've forgotten the epic fantasy movie that started it all.  THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Watch it again with a pair of 1939 eyes.

Fernando
Fernando

What about The Neverneding Story? One of the best fantasy films ever, if not the best. I would put Hook in there also.

 

Yusufdon
Yusufdon

Willow and Krull would of been on the list for me and The Lord Of The Rings as No.1 (best film ever); Conan and Legend both brilliant choices with breathtaking soundtracks. 

SirRobinTheNotSoBraveAsLancelo
SirRobinTheNotSoBraveAsLancelo

Crongratulation for the comments, I rarely read such a quality of discussion on internet. Most certainly never actually. Know I feel like seeing all the movies in that list that I havent watched yet. Keep up the nice work!

Willybach
Willybach

Let's be honest there aren't many good ones are there. I used to love Fantasy books as a kid, yet was always disappointed by my trips to the video rental shop. I loved Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I still love it to this day. Let's be honest animated movies are where it's at now with Fantasy, 'The Book of Kells', 'How to train your Dragon' etc, just waiting for them to produce a few more adult ones... 

Willybach
Willybach

Avatar? It's more fantasy than Sci-fi isn't it?

Gameht
Gameht

The 13th Warrior is best movie in my opinion

David
David

These are all great titles! I would love to see more like Legend. Another good title that comes to mind is Stardust. Its a fun title and Id like to see more movies like it.

rayla
rayla

Lord of the Rings my brothers own and yes i would have to agree it is a great movie, in all the tense seens you go tens when theres a hush that comes on you get an eery feeling thinking in your head Whats gonna happen,  oh noo or smoe time its just music and then when your not expecting it something does happen boom your the only one in the room and you get a funny feeling and chills it one of those your in the movie to kind of movie. I personaly think they should make a theater that plays old movie for cheaper :) now who agrees on that one? my Brothers would also have added Starwars though.

feyelvenwarrior
feyelvenwarrior

Being an REH fan Conan the Barbarian would be at the top of my own list along with Legend and LOTR. Like some of the other people posting I would also add Dragonslayer (probably the best dragon movie ever to date), Willow (regardless of his shortcomings, Lucas had another definite win with this movie), and the Beastmaster (a very pulpy fantasy made in the sword-and-sorcery hayday). I had forgotten about the movie the Sword and the Sorcerer. Thanks for the fantasy refresher!

Eli Cash
Eli Cash

Kudos for saying the theatrical version of Legend is better; that makes me happy to be a part of the minority. Tons prefer the director's cut only because of the music.

urcool91
urcool91

I think that the Goblet of Fire is the best Harry Potter movie, but that might just be me and my obbsession with Voldemort. Also, why on earth don't you have any Star Wars on here?!?!?!

David Early
David Early

Great list! You even added some not-so-popular ones too. One error though, "The 13th Warrior" (awesome movie!) wasn't based off of Beowulf, it was based off of the book "Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crichton.

Balthore
Balthore

Great list.  I've seen everyone of them on there multiple times and still enjoy watching them (even though I'm not a Potter fan I still get sucked into the movies). Legend is one of my all time favs, and yes I agree the theatrical cut is better. Two I would add, just because I grew up watching the Muppets... Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal always captivated me, and still bring out the childish awe of fantasy in me.  Not as much as they used to, but they are enjoyable in their simple, childish nature. I agree with feyelvenwarrior as well and would have to put Willow on my list for sure.

Adina Harris
Adina Harris

I'm a kid at heart still, so I have to say I enjoyed the latest Alice in Wonderland.  Does the original Matrix count as fantasy?  If it does, then it's in my top ten. Ladyhawke I do love despite the score.  Now everyone can boo and hiss me all they like, but I like Aeon Flux..but again is it fantasy?  To me there are many elements of fantasy in it.  Love all the unique gadgets and implants, and the organic elements of their world, not to mention cool costuming...which I know doesn't make the movie, but as an artist this film holds a lot of appeal to me in many ways. I still have to go with original Star Wars too, in spite of the lousy prequels. LOTR remains my favorite above all. When I was a little kid, I also loved a movie called Time Bandits....I can hear the booing and hissing again, but hey, I was a little kid and at the time it inspired me. Lastly I liked Dragonheart...simply because Sean Connery has the best damn dragon voice imaginable.

Jason M
Jason M

Man, you guys gave me a lot to think about, I still haven't see Last of the Mohican's, may have to give that a try. I was going to say I loved Dragonheart, but Adina got to it just now, but I'll mention it anyhow.  LOTR is for sure the all time best for me personally. Krull was an awesome movie for me when I was just a tike, but I watched it not too long ago and I could barely get through it, so it didn't age well for me. I never got into the original Dragon Slayer due to the hero, he reminded me of the King's son in Braveheart, wimpy.  Braveheart isn't so much fantasy, but since I just mentioned it I can't stop but thinking how awesome that movie was.  BeastMaster someone mentioned, loved that movie as a kid, haven't seen it in ages. Thanks for the Good Read.

Ophiucha
Ophiucha

I would likely place Pan's Labyrinth over all of these, but if I had to only swap out one, it would be Harry Potter. That was my least favorite of the HP films, so I don't feel too bad about that. The 13th Warrior and Excalibur would likely be replaced on my list, too. Then again, if we could count animation, I don't think anything on this list would be able to stay. That medium is just better for the genre, I think. Particularly if it is hand-drawn.

Julia Barrett
Julia Barrett

Excalibur, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Princess Bride will always be my top three, but I have to add Predator, The Terminator and the cartoon version of The Last Unicorn to the list. Do you consider Predator and The Terminator fantasy or science fiction?

Nathan J. Lauffer
Nathan J. Lauffer

I was obsessed with Highlander as a kid. I watched it a few years ago, however, and realized how amazingly cheesy it is now. You are 100% right that it didn't age well. :-) It's still a great mythology. Unfortunately, subsequent sequels hurt that mythology a lot. Have you seen Highlander: The Source? Ouch! The is a great example of a franchise that is ripe for a reboot (J.J. Abrams should do it).

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Alexandra! Which animated fantasy films would you consider to be the best?

GreybeardSpeaks
GreybeardSpeaks

Pans Labrynth is visually splendid. Regretably, it concludes with the infamous St. Elsewhere ending which negates everything that proceeded it. A terrible cop out, to put it politely.

Igor Mordos
Igor Mordos

Antonio- its me! (Hint- reunion at Chili's a few weeks ago.) Interesting list. Personally the first Conan movie would have been higher in my list. The original Clash of the Titans was also a good little watch (not the horrid remake- visually interesting but otherwise "Retch".) For your consideration an obscure and old film, but one I think bears mention- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad circa 1973. While many of the characters are paper thin, the atmosphere of the film is classic adventure (much like the original King Kong- also awesome!) and it has splash of that antedeluvian Atlantean lost world of giants and monsters that so fascinates me.

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Stuart, I like Dragonslayer, but it didn't make my top ten. Perhaps its because Peter MacNicol is never totally convincing as a hero. He is much better cast as the possessed art historian in Ghostbusters II. LadyHawke has a lot going for it, but the score is problematic. In particular, I recall a few instances of what can only be described as 80's synthesizer pop. It totally ruins the medieval fantasy vibe for me.

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Tom, While I'm not crazy about Krull, I don't absolutely loathe it. In fact, I haven't seen it since I was a little kid, and don't remember much. I vaguely recall a cool scene with a giant spider web, and something about a cyclops. What are some of the problems with the film?

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Meg! I like Willow, but the two little brownie fellows are just a tad too cheesy for me. As for why you couldn't get into the 13th Warrior... perhaps its inherent uber manliness didn't resonate with you. Now why would that be. ;)

Tom aka Dusky
Tom aka Dusky

Tony, my utter hatred and contempt for Krull boils down to two factors: the script and the acting. I can live with dismal SFX - I'm a Blake's Seven fan for Heaven's sake - but the other two completely destroy my ability to immerse myself in the story. I'm sure it's more enjoyable if you've had a few drinks before watching it, but sadly I've never been that drunk. :)

Stuart Clark
Stuart Clark

Now sir, I do believe you speak sacrilege.

Meg the Healer
Meg the Healer

Great list Tony! I am surprised that Willow didn't make the top 10, but it is a personal list - so everyone has their own make-up. Great choices though - I didn't get into the 13th Warrior.

Tamar
Tamar

Someone's just said it, but I'd like to reiterate Pan's Labyrinth. What a work of art! My fave of all time is the Dark Crystal, and am still a bit of a sucker for the Neverending Story.

Lorwynd
Lorwynd

Great list. I've never seen Last of the Mohicans, but all the rest are great. I loved Sword and the Sorceror -named D&D characters after some of the characters and always wanted to have a sword that could shoot off two of its blades. I also like Krull, but could have done without the lasers. Dragonslayer was good. Reign of Fire wasn't a great epic fantasy, but it was enjoyable. Deathstalker was pure cheese, and then there's always the list of hybrid fantasy/sci-fi flicks.

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Lorwynd, I found the first Deathstalker to be very hard to sit through. In fact, I got so bored that I couldn't finish it. However, there was some great eye candy in it, including the late Lana Clarkson (apparently slain by Phil Spector). Now Deathstalker II is a different story. While the first one tried to be serious, the second embraced its cheesiness and ran with it. The result was so much fun.

Stuart Clark
Stuart Clark

Hey Antonio, I agree, the score for Ladyhawke was terrible as noted by George R.R. Martin here http://tinyurl.com/3bzjq4y who describes it perfectly. I still thought it was a good film though. He also lists some other movies that I didn't recall yesterday but enjoyed immensely, namely Labyrinth and Pan's Labyrinth. Dragonslayer I thought was great purely for the fact that the dragon was hinted at through the whole movie and I kept thinking, this dragon is going to suck in a really bad CGI/muppet kind of way when it appears. When it did finally show it's scaly face I thought, holy cow! - now that's a decent looking dragon. I also liked the fact that most of the cast were completely unknown to me at the time. All that said, I still think you have a great list. Thanks for posting it and bringing back some childhood memories ;-)

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Thanks Stuart! I appreciate the link to George R.R. Martin's thoughts on LadyHawke. It totally agree with him that it is a great movie marred by a terrible score. I like his suggestion of issuing a new version in which the score is replaced with something more appropriate. As for Dragonslayer, that is by far the best dragon ever filmed. I hope that Smaug matches, or perhaps tops it. I have faith in Peter Jackson, and as I understand it Guillermo del Torro (director of Pan's Labyrinth) is largely responsible for Smaug's final design.

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Thanks for the comment, Tamar. I also love the Dark Crystal, although it's not in my top ten. Never Ending Story is good as well, although I'm not entirely satisfied with the ending, which puts the story's outcome in the hands of the little kid reading the book. It seemed like a lame attempt to push a "reading is good" message, at the expensive of an otherwise epic story.

Me
Me

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is the best Harry Potter film. That and Deathly Hallows are my favorites in the series. I like Azkaban, but it's overrated.

Stuart Clark
Stuart Clark

Tom, I appreciate the civility with which you threaten me ;-) I'm surprised you're not similarly incensed by Red Sonja, which was equally as cheesy, if not moreso, than Krull. You have to understand, it was during my formative years that I first saw Krull and to this day I still have a soft spot for Ergo the magnificent..."short in stature, tall in power, narrow of purpose and wiiide of vision. And I do not travel with peasants and beggars. Good day!"

Tom aka Dusky
Tom aka Dusky

Oh, I do hate Red Sonja. Were my hatred of that movie channelled into a weapon it could well burn the world. Sadly (possibly) for you and your formative years, it's eclipsed by my uttered hatred for Krull, which surpasses an ability to convey contempt in mere words. Perhaps I'll revert to grunts instead. Here goes. 'Gruuuunnntttt!' At least you've taken my words in good spirit, which places you quite high in the hierarchy of those who usually trawl the interweb. :)

Tom aka Dusky
Tom aka Dusky

That, along with Bladerunner 2, will finally convince me that the world is fit to be destroyed. Bring on the comet!

Tom aka Dusky
Tom aka Dusky

Mr. Clark, the fact that you've even mentioned Krull in the same sentence as Ladyhawke (which was certainly interesting, but sadly not interesting enough to register on my list) means I have no choice but to construct a very big stick with which to to thwack you on the head from my remote location. 'Thwack!'

Tom aka Dusky
Tom aka Dusky

I'd include Dragonslayer and The Company of Wolves at the expense of Harry Potter and Mohicans, but all told it's not a bad list. At least you didn't include Krull, which not only makes me ashamed to be a fantasy fan but also a member of the supposedly superior species on this planet. Thought-provoking as always, I can imagine this topic causing many arguments down the pub late of an evening.

David
David

 My niece loves that movie Tangled so I think i know what your saying. It's a cute movie

AlexGaginsky
AlexGaginsky

No, it's not. It's actually way more scitntific than, say, Matrix, with all its spiritual stuff.

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Thanks David!  You are correct that the 13th Warrior is based on "Eaters of the Dead," which is Michael Crichton's interpretation of Beowulf.  He wrote it in response to a bet that he could make Beowulf interesting.  :)

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Thanks Jason! I haven't seen Beastmaster in decades, although I fear that it may not have aged well.  Of course, my perception may be skewed by the terrible sequel in which Beastmaster travels to the 1990s. 

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Nathan, I totally agree that Highlander is due for a reboot. J.J. Abrams could certainly pull it off. And yes, I had the misfortune of seeing The Source. What a disappointment. :(

Antonio del Drago
Antonio del Drago

Hey Igor! It's great seeing you on here. As far as the films on this list go, they are in no particular order. If I had to rank them according to favorites, I'm not sure that I could do it. I love each of these movies so much, but in different ways. I've seen the original Clash of the Titans a few times, and have always enjoyed it. I'll have to check out the Golden Voyage of Sinbad at some point.

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