By Art Schmidt
I have a few Honorable Mentions that I am going to list first, rather than sticking them at the end like after-thoughts. Since I didn’t include them in my actual Top Ten list, the least I can do is put them first so they aren’t entirely skipped over. These made my initial rough list but, for one reason or another, just didn’t make the final cut: Heavy Metal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragonslayer, Shrek, Time Bandits & The Wizard of Oz. (Note: Starting at number one, since #10 is the ‘top’ of my list)
#1 – The Golden Voyage of Sinbad
A favorite of my youth, and one of the Ray Harryhausen classics. Dynamation doesn’t hold a candle to the powers of today’s CGI engines, but in its day it ruled the cineplex, at least as far as fantasy went. Sinbad’s voyage across the seas to find the Fountain of Destiny was fun and exhilarating and awesome in its day.
Of course, this is more a sentimental favorite than a real ‘All-time Top Ten’ winner, but it works for me. And of course, there was Caroline Munro…
#2 – Willow
“The power to control the world is in which finger?” the High Aldwin asks the young apprentice hopefuls, holding out his hand.
“I was going to say my own,” Willow later admits, after first choosing poorly.
“That is the correct answer!” Billy Barty’s High Aldwin exclaims. “You lack faith in yourself.”
Willow is one of those movies that just makes me smile. It’s funny and different and has quirky characters, but the fantasy element is strong and Val Kilmer (Top Gun, Heat, Wonderland), Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, the Harry Potter movies) and Joanne Whalley (Scandal, The Man Who Knew Too Little) are all great. Especially Kilmer. Davis’ Willow gives the movie its heart and soul; Kilmer’s Madmartigan gives it the proper excitement and humor.
What I like about Willow most is that it avoided all of the Conan rip-offs of the day. No muscle-bound hero, no comedic side-kicks, no supreme magical spell/artifact/being/weapon (unless you count Princess Elora herself). It was an honest tale in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, about simple people trying to thwart evil.
#3 – The Frighteners
One of my favorite movies, The Frighteners is a little bit horror movie, little bit comedy, little bit fantasy, little bit love story, and a whole lot of cool rolled into one hundred-and-ten-minute roller coaster ride. Michael J. Fox (The Back to the Future movies, Family Ties, Spin City) is funny and believable as Frank Bannister, a self-proclaimed ‘psychic investigator’ who claims to be able to rid the living of the mischievous spirits of the dead, when in fact he’s a psychic con man who sends in the spirits to drum up business in the first place. Until he runs into the Grim Reaper, taking a deadly toll on the small coastal town Frank inhabits, at which point he begins to use his powers for good in an inhuman man-hunt.
Bannister’s ghost side-kicks are hilarious, the sight gags are funny, and the scary parts have the right amount of creep in them. The whole movie is fast-paced and fun, and while some bits of the storyline are fuzzy, it’s a blast right up until the end credits roll to the tune of ‘Don’t fear the reaper’.
#4 – Conan the Barbarian (1982)
This pick needs little explanation. I’m a life-long Conan fan; the Howard stories and novels, the Marvel comics, the movies, the ongoing novels by various authors, the Age of Conan MMO (though that was short-lived), and of course numerous toys and other stuff. And Conan the Barbarian is one of the pinnacles of barbarian culture there is. The original, that is, though the recent remake was a fairly decent movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hero, James Earl Jones’ villain, Mako’s gritty narration, and Sandahl Bergman’s fiery Valeria come together in what might have otherwise been a terrible movie. Many still think it is, but I beg to differ. Conan came forth in the era in-between Claymation and CGI, after Clash of the Titans but before Jurassic Park, but the effects were good enough.
#5 – Shrek 2
Disney was the king of all things animated for seventy years, and lately Pixar has ruled that roost. But Dreamworks Animation absolutely nailed the animated fantasy adventure with the Shrek series, and the best one by far is the second installment. This is one of the few sequels that surpassed the first. The clever twist on fairytale standards begun in Shrek goes crazy in the sequel, with Prince Charming, the Fairy Godmother, the frog turned prince (and then king), and the fairytale land Far, Far Away all getting a well-deserved skewering as Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and the whole troop make a joyous wreck of everyone else’s plans and schemes.
The tongue-in-cheek references are just the icing on the cake; Shrek 2 is a movie I can watch again and again and never get tired of seeing Pinocchio getting jiggy wit’ it chanting “I’m a real boy! I’m a real boy! I’m a…” *poof* “Awwwww…”
Color me tickled pink.
#6 – The Princess Bride
What can be said about The Princess Bride that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, nothing at all. Why do people love this movie so much? You mean, you don’t? Inconceivable! Ok, lemme ‘splain. No, there is no time. Lemme sum up:
It’s not a kissing book, but there is some of that in there. And the hero is not left-handed, but he is the dread Pirate Roberts. Sort of. But give him a break, he’s been mostly dead all day. And the other hero’s name is Inigo Montoya; someone killed his father, and they better prepare to die. You still don’t know what the story is about? Inconceivable! It’s about true love, of course. And perfect breasts. And having fun storming the castle.
Wow. That makes me want to watch the movie again. What’s that? You still don’t know how that movie is on my Top Ten list?
I know, I keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
#7 – Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I won’t bombard you with movie quotes from this one, the most quotable of all movies ever made, whether by the Python troop or not. Holy Grail is, quite simply, the Holy Grail of all comedies.
What is your favorite movie? The Holy Grail! No, wait, The Lord of the… AHHHH!!!!!!!
#8 – Sleepy Hollow
Tim Burton is a great director (Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland (2009)), and his ongoing collaboration with Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) has given us some great fantasies over the years (did Edward Scissorhands really come out more than twenty years ago? Sheesh, I’m old…) To me, almost all of Burton’s work is great in its geeky, off-kilter, out-of-the-box way, but none shines like his take on Ichabod Crane. The plot elements from Washington Irving’s original story, the screenplay by Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker, the atmosphere Burton creates, the innocent beauty portrayed by Christina Ricci, and the superb fish-out-of-water academic played by Depp, is a perfect storm of fantasy creativity.
The Headless Horseman is especially well-conceived, with Ray Park (The Phantom Menace, X-Men) performing the combat acrobatics and Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, The Dead Zone, True Romance) giving ‘the Hessian’ ghoulish life when his head is in place. The curse, the old tree, the vengeful witch, the sleepy town, the foggy woods, they all come together in the perfect blend of fantasy, horror and, thanks to Depp, humor amidst the gore.
#9 – Excalibur
John Boorman’s masterpiece tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is my kind of fantasy movie. It’s dark, gritty and foreboding. It pulls no punches and doesn’t candy-coat. Arthur is the boy hero but he’s also fatally flawed, Merlin is the all-knowing but equally-flawed magician, and of course the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot is passionate, compelling and tragic. Combat is harsh and cruel and down-in-the-mud filthy, and not many of my friends came away from that movie wanting to swing a sword for a living. Boorman’s hallmark was always his ability to set a mood, dark and deep, that grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go. And Excalibur is all of that, and Boorman’s finest work.
“Good and evil,” Merlin says wisely. “There never is one without the other.” Indeed.
#10 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Whose blood doesn’t start pumping faster at the rousing opening notes of the theme to Indiana Jones? Ok, I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking “Wait a minute! This isn’t a fantasy film, at least not in the truest sense of the word.” But hang on, it does contain magic. At the very least it contained religious paranormalism, which is pretty darned close even if you don’t think of it as real ‘magic.’ But let’s not get into a debate about that, shall we? Inevitably, no minds would get changed and it would only spoil the mood.
Raiders was and still is one of the greatest classic adventure movies of all time (fantasy adventure movies, that is!). And besides, I could not allow myself to have a Top Ten Fantasy list without a Spielberg movie on it.
#11 – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
I assume that you wouldn’t be reading this article unless you were interested in fantasy movies yourself, so there should be no need to explain this at all. In fact, it almost goes without saying. As in I almost didn’t even list it, since almost any Fantasy Top Ten Movie list would in reality go up to an understood Eleven, and Eleven would be The Lord of the Rings.
But if you are aren’t a fantasy fan, reading this for some other reason (I have no idea what that might be), let me educate you as to why The Lord of the Rings is the most awesome fantasy ever. It’s the chicks. All those elven chicks running around in leather halter tops with bare midriffs, and the scenes where they make out with the heroes (that rules!). And all of the dragons, the ones rampaging across the skies and waylaying all those armies of trolls and skeletons, yeah, that’s what it was. And the big, strong hero guys in cool-looking armor on horseback with the huge magic swords cutting all of the bad guys’ heads off, those guys rule. Oh, and the awesome sorcerer combat scenes where the wizards are hurling fireballs and lightning bolts and vorpal bunny swarms at each other. These movies totally rock!
Of course, all those common tropes of hum-drum fantasy movies are not in LOTR, and that’s what makes it so awesome. Years ago, a friend of mine summed it up perfectly. “In most fantasy, the heroes are questing for all-powerful magic that’s central to their success and will make them famous. In The Lord of the Rings, the heroes are striving to destroy the great magic so they can return to their normal lives.” Fantastic.
Turn out the lights, this discussion is over.
(OK, not really, tomorrow… come back for ten more of our favorite fantasy movies).