By C.J. Bunce
Fantasy movies have been around since the beginning of cinema itself. The earliest filmmakers themselves were magicians of sorts, and what better way to dazzle an audience than show them something amazing and… unbelievable. But it’s not until the last ten or so years that fantasy was fully realized, rich and realistic, with classic stories finally matching the imaginations of decades of readers. There are of course exceptions. Big ones even. Like The Wizard of Oz. Only The Lord of the Rings trilogy gives The Wizard of Oz a run for its money, but does any single LOTR film compare to the one, classic Oz? I think that film still holds up today against any other film made since.
This is the first of four articles where each of the borg.com writers discusses their “ten favorite fantasy films” as we did with our favorite Halloween films last fall. Note this is a favorites vs. a “best of” list. We may have to do a “best of” list later, but “best of” lists are everywhere and often look exactly alike. When you’re discussing “favorite fantasy films” as opposed to “the best” you are bound to see some of the best films straddle both lists. But “favorites” lists allows you to fold in guilty pleasures, and maybe those films that, as quality is concerned, don’t hold their own to today’s audiences, considered from a more objective standard. Hopefully you can pick up a fantasy film or two you either haven’t heard of or haven’t seen yet.
What is fantasy? Our criteria was that there should be some element of magic in the film, and that the film wouldn’t better fit in another genre list like sci-fi or horror, etc.
My list excludes several genre films that could arguably fall into a fantasy list. I’ll save holiday fantasies like Elf and Miracle on 34th Street for another day. I also did not include superhero movies or action/adventure films, which I see as their own separate genres, or historical fiction, like Braveheart, despite that film often topping fantasy genre lists. Finally, I have not included movies that are also predominantly science fiction, otherwise the “greatest space fantasy of all time”–Star Wars, would be on the list. So my goal is including only “plain old classic fantasy movies.”
Honorable Mentions that made nobody’s Top 10
Because you can’t just list your top ten (why leave it at that?) I want to mention a few films that would have made the list before the advent of modern big fantasy films. Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal stood by itself for a time as real, incredible fantasy, with strange creatures and places. This film, and the strange Labyrinth, were the kind of romping fantasy that seemed to skip by an entire generation of baby boomers. Goonies is sure to make a favorites list for me but I am not sure there is any magic there to technically merit placing on a fantasy list. Great acting by Dennis Quaid and a great dragon voiced by Sean Connery made Dragonheart a solid fantasy film that was easy to watch over and over, and City of Ember and the better than average Disney film The Sorceror’s Apprentice with Nicholas Cage are newer fantasy films that I liked a lot but haven’t re-watched enough to have it make my list–yet. I’d watch any of those films again today. It’s the “over and over again watching” that I looked toward to finally nail down the order of my top ten. So here it is, from 10 to my current favorite at the number one spot:
10. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. What defines fantasy as a genre is the presence of the magical or supernatural. Captain Jack Sparrow is a dead pirate captain, like the ghost pirate we loved in Scooby Doo, and what Lord of the Rings: Return of the King revealed to be that production’s coolest creation, the brilliantly executed army of the dead. From a completely over-the-top but cool performance by Johnny Depp to a fun voyage, a great ship, and a whole stew of solid actors, Pirates is fun fantasy in a historical setting, with a rousing soundtrack by Klaus Badelt that will stick in your head long after the credits have rolled.
9. Alice in Wonderland. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tim Burton’s unique style, until I was blown away by his take on this classic story. Burton was born to create Wonderland for movie audiences. Johnny Depp is completely mad as the Hatter, Anne Hathaway perfectly cast as the White Queen, and Helena Bonham Carter vile and insane as the Red Queen. They also went all out with voice work for the digital characters with Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton, Christopher Lee, and Michael Gough all supplying great characterization. Beyond stunning visuals and sets, the story masterfully blends Alice in Wonderland with other works of Lewis Carroll as if they always belonged together. Burton’s audacity pays off and Alice can be watched again and again, each time finding incredible nuances. Burton joined Peter Jackson and Victor Fleming in an exclusive club of masters of the most classic of fantasy books to make it to screen.
8. Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. This movie was written and created to get it into theaters as quickly as possible, in only a matter of literally weeks. So how can such a thrown-together film stand the test of time? I give a lot of credit to Kevin Costner as a believably viable, yet oafish and sincere Robin. His merry men are all well cast. And we got to see Alan Rickman as the most classic of villains, playing the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham. One of the best surprise endings gives us Sean Connery as we’d like to see him in an entire feature-length role (The achingly, poorly cast First Knight didn’t cut it, unfortunately). Who cares if the cast isn’t British and their costumes don’t make much sense? OK, this wouldn’t make any “best of” list, but I love watching it whenever it is on TV so it belongs right here. And it also has a great soundtrack by Michael Kamen.
7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In one sense, taking away the last three Harry Potter films, which to me are lesser works, the first five all sort of merge together–except for the story of Azkaban. Professor Lupin is probably the best of Harry’s professors, and his greatest role model is Sirius Black. Of all the Harry Potter films this is the only one I will stop and watch again. It’s a standout film in the biggest mega-fantasy franchise ever. Here you have cool tools of fantasy like the Marauder’s Map and Hermione’s time-turner. And the Dementors are rivaled in their quiet dark creepiness only by the Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. And although there are some minor story problems involving the time-turner and the killing of an innocent with little commentary, the digital realization of a Hippogriff named Buckbeak becomes one of the best executed fantasy animals ever. John Williams was able to make a throughly creepy mood with his darkest (and final) Harry Potter soundtrack here.
6. Field of Dreams. “If you build it, he will come.” “It’s not heaven, it’s Iowa.” Not only did Field of Dreams give us some of the best catch phrases ever, it got people who don’t like baseball to like baseball (me included). Of all the ten movies on my list, Field of Dreams may be the most transformatively magical, and possibly the most unique because it is so off-the-wall. How did anyone sell this as a movie? Ghostly baseball players coming out of a cornfield to get in another game of baseball? The one-two punch of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones (and Burt Lancaster!) put this film up with Jaws as a film that you can’t walk away from once you start watching it, even for the 100th time.
5. The Jungle Book. Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 book of stories called The Jungle Book included the story of Mowgli, and it comes alive in a very wonderful way in 1967’s Disney animated movie. Mowgli’s life is the ultimate in escapes from reality for young viewers. Who wouldn’t want to be raised by wolves? Who wouldn’t want a giant friend who was a bear, and a wise advisor who is a black panther? The music made the simply detailed animation more frolicking and fun. And even the sinister villain, the tiger Shere Khan, need not meet his end in this film in order to round out a well told story of friendship, manipulation, and trust. And the hypnotic Kaa remains unmatched as the clever manipulator until we meet Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. What’s the best of the three movies of Middle Earth? My hope is one of the two movies being made right now into The Hobbit series. I have issues with both Fellowship of the Ring and even more issues with The Return of the King, but it all amounts to nitpicking. As a series, it is the best fantasy series ever. As stand alone film, The Two Towers makes my list for the same reason The Empire Strikes Back would trump the other Star Wars films. Introductions of incredible places, like Rohan. And where my eyebrows wrinkled at killing off Gandalf the White in Fellowship of the Ring to only bring him back with a different name, Gandalf the Grey knows how to lead an army into battle at Helm’s Deep. My favorite character of the series gets a full story arc here–the classically regal and noble yet flawed Theoden King, leader of Rohan. The brother of the frustrating Boromir is introduced as David Wenham’s Faramir, who both kidnaps and then frees the traveling Hobbits. Merry and Pippin recruit the help of the awesome Ents–talking, walking trees that march into battle to protect what is theirs (also seen in The Wizard of Oz). Although the main journey of Frodo and Sam and Gollum finds them moving from point B to point C in this installment, the real adventure is what happens to the other six remaining members of the Fellowship. Whereas at the end of Return of the King the several denouements had me cheering for Gollum, in The Two Towers the excitement and pacing was just right, leaving audiences hungry for more at the end.
3. The Muppet Movie. A perfectly magical film. Jim Henson can’t be overstated as sitting among the kings of creating the fantastical. The Muppets had already been known to us through The Muppet Show, yet this movie brought laugh out loud humor to a fully realized classic hero’s journey–a drive from the East Coast to Hollywood. With a frog and a pig and a bear and a dog and what the heck are all those other guys like Beaker and Animal and …? Not since It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World had Hollywood comic actors united behind a single important film with too many cameos to count, and all brilliantly funny. I like all the Muppet movies but this remains my favorite. We don’t analyze it but Henson did the unimaginable by making fabric characters as real as any human in any film and without the realism required by all other fantasy films of make-believe characters. Instead it just has a lot of honesty and heart, to make this movie beloved by audiences for generations to come.
2. The Wizard of Oz. I have likely seen only Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Trek films, and Jaws more times than The Wizard of Oz over the years. Before video tape and DVDs I remember watching once a year on a Sunday night when The Wizard of Oz was re-broadcast, waiting to watch closely again to see how they changed from a black and white Kansas farm to the technicolor land of Oz. Along with The Jungle Book, I watched this film as a young kid (unlike 8 other films on this list that came much later) and saw first-hand what magic in fantasy was all about. So many elements make this movie work, many from the source story by L. Frank Baum, like the long journey leading back home. A giant village of extras with the Munchkins. Crazy scary flying monkeys and arguably the best villain ever filmed in both the Wicked Witch of the West and the equally evil Miss Gulch. Good costumes from 1939 meant we didn’t need CGI or animation–the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are all believable and real. And of course the soundtrack and songs are unmatched and memorable, led by a perfect performance by the young Judy Garland. The Wizard of Oz is the Citizen Kane of the fantasy genre.
1. The Golden Compass. A perfect, elaborate fantasy story in an incredible, new parallel universe of Earth. A perfect cast. Beautiful, unreal sets. Historically inspired costumes that span different worlds. Special effects that merge reality and fantasy seamlessly. An often overlooked brilliant fantasy masterwork. When I first saw this I instantly thought this was the finest, most enjoyable fantasy film I’d ever seen. If all steampunk was this good I would be a true believer. Look at the cast: A stately Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel, a beautifully striking but sinister Nicole Kidman’s Ms. Coulter, the perfect helpers along the voyage in Sam Elliot’s Lee Scoresby and Eva Green’s Serafina, smaller roles with gravitas by Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee, and stellar voiceovers by Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ian McKellen. The design work is lavish with a textbook fantasy component talisman in the magical alethiometer, animals that share your journey and wear armor into battle with you. Gyptians! Flying witches with bows and arrows. A cool airship. A big, exciting ride. What more could anyone want?
One big element I see across my list? Talking animals (and other things that don’t normally talk like trees and cornfields and dead people) are in 9 of my picks. Also, I must like Christopher Lee and Alan Rickman who show up in three films, and Johnny Depp, Ian McKellen, and Kevin Costner show up in two films. Tomorrow… come back for day two of our favorite fantasy films and click on the Comments to let us know your favorites.