In recent years the fantasy genre has exploded in popularity in large part because of George R. R. Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire and its HBO television adaptation Game of Thrones. But the fantasy genre is much more than medieval-style swords and sorcery. In fact, the fantasy genre is notoriously difficult to define, even though its basic guidelines — the use of magic or the supernatural as a main element of the plot — appear simple at first glance. These films showcase just how diverse the fantasy genre can be. With that being said, here are the 10 greatest fantasy movies ever made.
1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
No fantasy list is complete without The Wizard of Oz, which consistently ranks among the greatest films ever made. Starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, a girl transported to the magical land of Oz, the film went on to earn six Academy Award nominations. However, it was notably not a box office success until its re-release 10 years later. Today, you only need to look at the film’s pop culture imprint to understand how important the film is. Phrases like “there’s no place like home” and “we’re not in Kansas anymore” are ingrained into the minds of people who haven’t even seen the film.
2. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A common argument is that Star Wars belongs in the fantasy genre rather than sci-fi because of its lack of focus on science itself, which means Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back deserves a place atop the list of the greatest fantasy films of all time. Directed by Irvin Kershner, the middle film in the original trilogy is the definitive high water mark in the entire series. It features stunning action set pieces, the introduction of Yoda, the best lightsaber battle in the series, and a shocking ending that continues to reverberate through pop culture almost 40 years later.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
While each of the three films in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy could rightfully find a place on this list — after all, they’re nearly identical in quality — in order to cut down on repetition we’re going with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as the series’ representative. So why The Fellowship of the Ring and not the others? Well, for starters the film brilliantly established characters and a compelling fantasy world in an environment that was not fantasy-friendly. It also feels like it’s the most contained of the three films, which obviously isn’t a problem if you plan on watching them all anyway, but it makes watching The Fellowship of the Ring slightly more satisfying on its own.
4. The Dark Crystal (1982)
The Dark Crystal is a fantasy film from directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz that was produced by the company behind The Muppet Show. The film follows the adventures of Jen, an elf-like Gelfling, who must restore order in the world by returning a lost shard to a powerful gem. The level of detail and creativity visible in The Dark Crystal can be mind-boggling at times while the film’s animatronics were considered groundbreaking at the time of release and still hold up to viewings today.
5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Big Trouble in Little China is one of those films that defies genre convention. Is it a comedy? Yes. Is it an action flick? Definitely. Is it fantasy? Considering the plot revolves around a truck driver facing off against an evil ancient sorcerer in a magical underworld beneath Chinatown, the answer has to be yes. Directed by John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China is an essential cult-classic to check out for its unbridled absurdity.
6. The Princess Bride (1987)
Endlessly quotable, The Princess Bride is an inescapable part of today’s pop culture. The film tells the story of a farmhand who must rescue his true love from the clutches of an evil prince. The story is told via a framing device of a grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson. The film’s post-modern style, great acting, and wonderful dialogue all lend themselves to a film that is great for both children and adults.
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Similar to what we did for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, we’re going with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to represent a series that was incredibly consistent (except maybe the first two films). Despite having the unenviable task of trying to break down J.K. Rowling’s detailed novels into feature-length films, the filmmakers eventually pulled off the impossible with a series that managed to explore the magic and fantasy of Rowling’s novels while building to a satisfyingly epic conclusion.
8. Labyrinth (1986)
Watching Labyrinth might be one of the better ways to celebrate it’s star David Bowie now that he has passed. Directed by Jim Henson and executive produced by George Lucas, Labyrinth follows the adventure of 16-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) and her journey into a magical maze to save her little brother who has been kidnapped by the the Goblin King (Bowie). The origins of Labyrinth came about when Henson was still working on The Dark Crystal and like that film, Labyrinth showcases some of the most fascinating creature design and sets you’ll ever see in a film.
9. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The NeverEnding Story is based on the first half of a novel of the same name by Michael Ende. The film is about a shy, bullied boy who discovers a book called “The NeverEnding Story” in the attic of a bookstore and upon reading it, is sucked into the book’s world. There, he finds himself embroiled in the struggle to stop a plague called The Nothing from destroying everything. Featuring memorable landscapes and puppetry, The NeverEnding Story has established itself as a cult classic for both children and adults following a disappointing original box office.
10. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Of all the fantasy and monster films that feature Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation wizardry, Jason and the Argonauts is by far the most timeless of the bunch. Directed by Don Chaffey, the film follows the classical adventure of Greek hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Along the way Jason and his crew find themselves matched up against harpies, a hydra, a giant bronze Talos, and of course skeletons. Strangely enough, you may find yourself feeling like some of the action sequences — specifically the fight against skeletons — somehow feel more real than many modern CGI films.
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