If there’s one thing these lists demonstrate, it’s that great fantasy stories are enduring. All four of us have named several films that reach deep into the literary and oral tradition of myths, legends, traditional bedtime stories, and classics of fantasy literature. It’s not surprising that what makes a great fantasy movie is the same stuff that makes a great story, period: amazing worlds, epic quests, doomed romance, and soaring imagination. More than half the movies on my list are direct retellings of well-known tales, and all of them are adapted in one way or another from earlier source material–be that a novel from the 1990s or a play by William Shakespeare, or anything in between.
It’s neither accidental nor surprising that my personal favorites list went this way, but there are plenty of contenders that just narrowly missed the cut and are worthy of mention, at least in passing. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by recent films Stardust (adapted from the Neil Gaiman novel) and Prince Caspian (from CS Lewis’s beloved Chronicles of Narnia), but I haven’t seen either film often enough to declare it a favorite… yet. Likewise, two classics from my childhood deserve a nod, and would have made the cut if this were a Favorite 15: the glorious Jim Henson/Brian Froud collaboration The Dark Crystal; and Willow, which is just as good as any other high fantasy film made in the last century. Lastly, because I feel someone should mention it, yet it somehow gets overlooked whenever we start talking about great fantasy films, is one of the few mermaid movies ever made (surprisingly enough), 1984’s fantastic classic Splash. It gets overshadowed by Hanks’s Big from a few years later, but it really is a wonderful movie that deserves to be better remembered for its contribution to the genre.
But. You’re looking for the ones that did make the cut, so here is my winnowed-down list of my ten alltime favorite fantasy films:
1. The Princess Bride
Art has suggested that we define great fantasy by the age at which we’re introduced to our favorites, and I tend to agree. This Rob Reiner masterpiece came out when I was thirteen, which is the ideal time to experience this wickedly smart, hilarious, and romantic fantasy romp. But viewers can enjoy it at any age! There are no roles in film history to rival Carey Elwes as Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts or Mandy Patinkin’s iconic Inigo Montoya, but Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Billy Crystal, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Peter Falk, and all the others turn in perfect performances, too. T he memorable scenes and imminently-quotable catchphrases ensure this film’s status as a fantasy legend.
2. Ever After
When you’re a fairy tale fan, the golden goose (so to speak) is, of course, Cinderella. No other tale so captures our love of the genre and our hope for true love to lift us from the drudgery of our daily lives. Everyone knows this story, and making it fresh and new and wonderful is hard! But Ever After was up to the challenge, and more. Set in the intensely naturalistic setting of early Renaissance France, this adaptation builds on the basic rags-to-riches framework to deliver a complex and deeply satisfying tale of smart lovers who complement one another, yet are set apart by a nearly unconquerable divide. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Dougray Scott makes for a Prince Charming any woman would swoon over.
3. A Knight’s Tale
Carrying on with the argument that retellings fit in the fantasy genre, magic or not, I’m sneaking one of my very favorite movies–period–onto this list. Turned off by the truly dreadful previews, I nearly missed this one–and I’m so glad I didn’t. From the ensemble cast (Heath Ledger! Rufus Sewell! Paul Bettany! That guy from Firefly!) to the wacky rock soundtrack, Chaucer has never been so much fun (and he was no wet blanket to begin with).
4. Mary Poppins
No film explores the power of childhood make-believe adventures better than this Disney classic. Who didn’t want their toys to put themselves away? Or spend an afternoon popping in and out of chalk drawings, riding magical carousel horses and winning the derby? Or laugh themselves into flight? A spoonful of sugar and the confident wink of a magical nanny makes it all possible.
5. Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade
Tales of King Arthur and the Holy Grail have been centerpieces of Western fantasy as long as we’ve been telling stories. The third, and arguably the best, installment of the Indiana Jones franchise brings that classic quest to the screen better than any film, ever. (I’m talking to YOU, da Vinci Code. You too, Excalibur. *shudders*) (The second-best film adaptation of the King Arthur legend is, of course, the 1960s classic Camelot with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave.)
6. Portrait of Jennie
For pure romance and starcrossed lovers, you can’t ask for more than William Dieterle’s sweet Depression-era tale of a starving artist and the doomed model who shapes his career, and his life. It has all the makings of a gothic mystery–but the tender performances of Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones make this instead a sweeping story of the power of love to reach beyond time and death. Fans of Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve’s Somewhere in Time should look this one up. (And fans of Portrait of Jennie should look up the marvelous children’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillippa Pearce.)
7. Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
The best installment of one of the most beloved fantasy series of our age. Need I say more?
8. Beauty and the Beast
No one was surprised when this Disney adaptation of Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s classic French fairy tale became the first-ever animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (and thus changed the awards structure forever). The lavish production, with its marvelous soundtrack, brought this tale as old as time to life with all the wonder and beauty we expect in our fairy tale films.
9. Arabian Nights
I have expressed my love for these stories on borg.com before, and this made-for-TV miniseries starring Mili Avatal absolutely swept me away. The production is gorgeous and epic, with a bold and brilliant cast that includes fine performances by Jason Scott Lee, John Leguizamo, Rufus Sewell (!), and Andy Serkis. It offers up all our Arabian Nights favorites: Ali Baba, Aladdin, and, of course, Scheherazade and her deeply disturbed husband, played with heartbreaking madness by Dougray Scott (who, really, we could stand to see A LOT more of. Just sayin’.).
10. Much Ado About Nothing
This is last on my list not because it’s my least favorite of the ten; far from it–it’s actually my alltime favorite movie! But of the ten, it’s the one that feels the least like fantasy to me, although it has neither more nor less magic than The Princess Bride, Ever After, or A Knight’s Tale. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh at the height of his early career, this utterly perfect adaptation of Shakespeare’s lusty romantic comedy is set against the breathtakingly beautiful Tuscan countryside and features fantastic performances by Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Michael Keaton, and Denzel Washington. I want to step inside this movie and live there, every time I watch Much Ado–and if that’s not the very definition of fantasy, than I don’t know what is.