The best fantasy movies: 50-41
The Marvel Cinematic Universe boldly straddles sci-fi, comic-book action and fantasy—and never more so than in the Thor movies, with their Tolkein-influenced take on Norse mythology and outrageous Flash Gordon-style fetish costumes. Thor is essentially a reboot of Masters of the Universe—a bulging hero heads to Earth to battle a skeletal psychopath—but with better special effects and more nod-wink humor.
Magic moment: The glistening CG cityscape of Asgard could’ve come straight from a mid-70s Yes LP cover.
Terry Gilliam gave his imagination full reign in this wild, woolly and weird time-hopping comedy for smarter kids. Packed with historical heroes, diminutive hustlers, post-Python humor, loopy cameos and bizarre fantastical asides—not to mention the bleakest, strangest ending imaginable—the film was an unlikely transatlantic smash hit.
Magic moment: David Warner’s petrifying Evil transforms into the universe’s creepiest fairground ride.
Shangri-La is the ultimate earthbound fantasy: an ancient magical kingdom buried deep in the Himalayas, ruled by peaceful Tibetan philosophers who have discovered the secret of eternal youth. Frank Capra’s adaptation of James Hilton’s hugely successful, Hitler-inspiring novel is a gloriously naïve fantasy adventure, the most expensive movie ever made at the time.
Magic moment: Ronald Colman’s climactic realization that it was all real—and he has to get back there!—is pure, giddy wish-fulfilment.
Begun in Britain but completed in California following the outbreak of war, this spectacular adventure based on several tales from 1001 Nights may have had a piecemeal production—and no less than six directors, including the mighty Michael Powell—but you wouldn’t guess it from the coherent result. Crammed with magical horses, terrifying transformations and gigantic genies, The Thief of Baghdad made an international star of amateur Indian actor Sabu, a.k.a. the Elephant Boy.
Magic moment: We all dream of having three wishes—but how many of us would ask for sausages?
Greeted with howls of derision at the time, John Carpenter’s loopy tribute to the Hong Kong action movies of the Shaw Brothers has since become a goofball cult classic. Giddily pastiching the American-hero-vs-shifty-foreign-villains template of the Indiana Jones movies, Carpenter plunges his dumbbell frontman Jack Clayton (Kurt Russell at his self-mocking finest) into a world of leaping demons, hapless geishas and lunatic wizards with flashing eyes.
Magic moment: The stage is set when Jack accidentally runs over the great sorcerer Lo Pan in his truck.
For a movie that was obviously pitched as “Big for girls,” this wonderfully spirited romantic comedy from late director Gary Winick has a strong personality of its own. On the other hand, there’s no mystery as to why it does: Jennifer Garner’s performance as a kid in a woman’s body is irresistibly guileless, and in a just world she would’ve been nominated for an Oscar.
Magic moment: Garner leads a group dance performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” You’ve never seen Andy Serkis’s motion captured quite like this.
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro is the most original and uncompromising cinema fantasist of the modern era, and Pan’s Labyrinth is his most striking statement. This gruesome, disquieting coming-of-age story draws on ancient influences—the central thread of a young woman drawn into terrible, otherworldly danger goes right back to Little Red Riding Hood—and adds an unflinching depiction of the brutality of war.
Magic moment: Does any single image better encapsulate the darker side of fantasy than the hideous Pale Man, with eyes in the palms of his hands?
He's not the first name you associate with fantasy, but Woody Allen pulled off one of his more out-there conceits with this tribute to the transportive power of the movies. It tells of a housewife (Mia Farrow) who, during the Depression, is swept off her feet by her favorite movie character (Jeff Daniels), who steps down from the screen and sweeps her into a heady romance. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of the fantasy movie.
Magic moment: The “left behind” characters in the film, who sit around bickering after their hero has departed for the “real world.”
All of Wes Anderson’s ornate, painstakingly precious films take place in a world just removed from our own, where anything seems possible. But he pushed that fantasy element to its extreme in The Life Aquatic, in which Bill Murray plays a globetrotting marine biologist exploring a bizarre, Dayglo undersea world.
Magic moment: Whenever Seu Jorge’s plaintive, Bowie-obsessed ship’s guitarist strikes up a tune, the film enters a mystical realm.
Featuring a career-defining performance from Tilda Swinton, this Virginia Woolf adaptation from Sally Potter is a magical affair. Swinton plays Orlando, in turns a man and a woman, as s/he travels in half-century leaps from the Elizabethan court to the 20th century, via the Civil War, early colonialism and more. It’s a sly, wise comment on things such as English history, sexuality and class, all of it wrapped in a beautiful, transporting fantasy.
Magic moment: When Orlando transforms again…and again…and again.
The best fantasy movies: 40-31
One of a number of classic fantasy movies based around the idea that the purest imaginative worlds can only be found in books (see also The Princess Bride), The NeverEnding Story draws on the entire pantheon of fantastical fiction—from Norse and Egyptian folklore to Wagnerian excess and post-Tolkein adventure stories. The result is a uniquely dreamlike world of wonder and wish-fulfilment. The theme tune’s terrific, too.
Magic moment: The first flight of the luck dragon Falkor is a scene of pure, soaring joy.
It’s light, funny and rooted in the real world, but this is still total fantasy. A boy, rejected from a fairground ride, finds his wish to be “big” granted when he wakes up as Tom Hanks—a child in the body of a man. The film’s gentle message is that it’s not always so much fun being an adult: endless bureaucracy, suspicions, meetings, sexed-up coworkers and the like. Don’t wish your childhood away! This being 1980s Hollywood, it’s all delivered as gentle, easily resolved fun.
Magic moment: When Josh wakes up in Tom Hanks’s body.
It was author Gary K. Wolf who had the masterstroke realization that Hollywood’s brooding, self-reflexive film noirs of the 1940s happened to coincide with the golden age of studio cartoons. Thus, he decided to smash the two together. Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel takes this idea and runs with it, creating a through-the-looking-glass L.A. where monochrome angst and Technicolor mayhem go hand-in-hand. You’re just as likely to spot Bugs Bunny as Humphrey Bogart.
Magic moment: The moment where the “supporting” cartoon collapses to the sound of a director yelling “cut!” is a paradigm-splattering eye-opener.
My Neighbor Totoro is beloved by kids around the world, but it was Princess Mononoke more than a decade later that truly brought the films of Hayao Miyazaki to the Western world. An environmentalist epic about giant forest gods, the blind greed of human industry and a warrior princess raised by wolves, this grand fantasy story is animation on a scale unlike anything Disney has ever tried.
Magic moment: The title character is introduced sucking poison out of a wound, blood smeared across her mouth. This isn’t your traditional princess.
William Dieterle’s supernatural monochrome melodrama has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance since Martin Scorsese echoed the film’s bright green lightning bolt in The Wolf of Wall Street. Following the not not-creepy interdimensional love affair between a poor painter and a girl named Jennie who seems to be from the past and aging rapidly, the film is a lot to swallow, but the squall it builds to is a perfect storm of truly impossible romance.
Magic moment: Scorsese got it right: That first flash of color still sends a chill up your spine.
CGI never created anything quite so unique as special effects master Ray Harryhausen’s model figures. He considered this tale from Greek mythology to be his best film. Certainly it has some of his finest creations: towering bronze giant Talos looming out of the ocean, the winged harpies and the seven headed Hydra.
Magic moment: The still-iconic fight between muscle-men and a sword-wielding skeleton army.
Swiss-cheese plotting, iffy accents, silly kilts and Queen on the soundtrack: What’s not to love about Highlander? Why director Russell Mulcahy cast a Frenchman (Christopher Lambert) as a Scottish clansman and a Scotsman (Sean Connery) as a Spanish noble is anyone’s guess, but when the plot’s this crazed, the direction’s this MTV-tight and the villains are this insanely badass, we’re not about to argue.
Magic moment: Lambert and Connery practice their swordplay on a mountain top while Freddie Mercury bellows “Who Wants to Live Forever”—pure, cheeseball glory.
The pinnacle of Wagnerian fantasy on screen, this adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s crypto-fascist pulp stories is so much more than just a goofy sword ‘n’ sandal throwback. The Spanish desert backdrops are stunning, the production design is spectacular and Arnold Schwarzenegger punches a camel.
Magic moment: Cannibal cultist Thulsa Doom’s transformation into a giant serpent is a classic of pre-digital effects technology.
Blending fantasy and comedy is a tricky task—just ask David Gordon Green and the guys behind 2011’s stoner spoof Your Highness—but director Rob Reiner and author-screenwriter William Goldman made it look effortless with this feisty, fast-paced and genuinely funny fairy tale. Their genius is to treat the fantastical elements completely seriously—the costumes are ornate, the special effects never look goofy and the world of the film is totally convincing, allowing the humor to shine through.
Magic moment: “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” Enough said.
An animated version of the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, this is a kids’ fantasy with a big heart. It tells of Mrs. Frisby, a fieldmouse, widow and mother trying to look after her young brood, one of whom is very ill, in the face of threats from humans and a race of souped-up, intelligent rats. Its sense of magic and danger is heightened by a base of grief. It also features the least cuddly, most terrifying wise old owl you could imagine.
Magic moment: When we learn how the skulking, super-smart rats gained their powers.
The best fantasy movies: 30-21
Drawing on Sufi teachings, religious tracts and surrealist art rather than traditional Northern European folk tales, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s experimental, psychedelic fantasy stands completely alone on this list. Obscure, artful and gleefully avant-garde, the film follows an acid-fried modern Jesus as he meets an alchemist and transcends through the seven levels of enlightenment.
Magic moment: The re-enactment of the Spanish conquest of South America using frogs and toads is one of the most remarkable scenes in cinema.
Ultrastylish commercial director Tarsem Singh spent millions of his own dollars collecting footage over several years for this entrancingly exotic fantasy, rooted in the medicated ramblings of a wounded stuntman (Lee Pace) who charms a little girl in the hospital with his outlandish tales. The dreamlike story he cooks up is tinged with traumatic catastrophe, but also one of the most glorious adventures ever captured on film.
Magic moment: A breathtaking opening credits sequence, shot in slo-mo and black and white, shows a train-track stunt gone wrong.
Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon were plucky up-and-comers when they played a pair of siblings who are magically transported through the TV screen and into the monochrome world of Pleasantville, a happy 1950s town where everyone’s polite, prim and happy—on the surface. Hunger Games director Gary Ross’s pin-sharp satire brilliantly undercuts the American dream, and the visual trick of gradually shifting the film from black and white to color to reflect the characters’ cultural awakening is masterful.
Magic moment: Repressed suburban Mom Joan Allen tries her hand at a little sexual self-fulfilment, and a tree outside the window explodes into glorious flames.
From its very beginning, cinema was indebted to fantasy, with Georges Méliès leading the way. The ambition of today’s multifeature sagas can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s two-part 1924 silent based on the mythic German poem Nibelungenlied and lavished with groundbreaking special effects, comely princesses and tons of swordplay.
Magic moment: The first instalment, Siegfried, features a giant, drooling dragon—a fully functioning puppet that’s the grandfather of Jabba the Hutt.
If all you remember from Muppet creator Jim Henson’s cult magical fantasy is Goblin King David Bowie and his terrifying codpiece, look again. This is a film bursting with ideas—philosophical, literary, mathematical, even spiritual—and the ornate, crumbling labyrinth is a wholly unique imaginative landscape.
Magic moment: The mournfully psychedelic junkyard sequence strikes a jarring but memorable tone of doom amid all the freaky goings-on.
Move over, Mulholland Drive: Jacques Rivette’s enchanting metafantasy begins with a distracted young woman stumbling through a Parisian park. She loses her scarf and when a curious onlooker retrieves it, the chase is on, one that plunges into exchanged female identities, interdimensional time travel and a mysterious house where nothing is set in stone.
Magic moment: The whole movie is a spell, but how can we not single out the bizarre coda of a boating scene? Reality merges with fantasy, not unpleasantly.
For the follow-up to their loopy time-travel pastiche Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson turned to the maddest, baddest fantasy novel of them all: The Bible. This time around, our doofus heroes from San Dimas, California are killed, condemned to hell, escape Satan, play Twister with Death, strike a bargain with God and end up saving the world through a combination of screeching guitars and extreme party vibes. Amen.
Magic moment: Bill and Ted convince St. Peter to open the pearly gates by quoting Poison lyrics at him.
If Terry Gilliam thought he’d been dragged through the mud by the studios following his brutalist sci-fi comedy Brazil, he hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. Baron Munchausen became a byword for expensive disasters: The budget spiraled, the special effects collapsed and audiences stayed away in droves. But the film remains a wounded wonder, crammed with wild ideas, bizarre costumes, berserk characters and a unique sense of giddy, anything-goes experimentation.
Magic moment: The Baron and his sidekick Sally travel to the moon and find a Lumiere-inspired madhouse peopled with giant schizophrenics.
The dream sequences of master director Luis Buñuel are always charged with a sociopolitical dimension, and this satire—one of his finest and most concentrated efforts—is no exception. A group of mildly haughty, self-entitled friends attempt to sit down to dinner together. All they want is to be served, but Buñuel has other plans for them.
Magic moment: Delighting at a menu of multiple fish options and a deep wine list, the party hears weeping: Behind a curtain, the restaurant’s manager lies dead.
Ang Lee’s high-flying melodrama, a vivid reinvention of the wuxia genre and one of only nine foreign-language movies to ever be nominated for Best Picture, is an unimpeachably perfect combination of physical and emotional combat. The fight choreography has yet to be topped, and every balletic moment of soaring wire-fu reveals something about the character who’s swooping through the air.
Magic moment: The first fight scene along the rooftops in the middle of the night, as the drums pound away on Tan Dun’s score.
The best fantasy movies: 20-11
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton did an okay job years later with Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, but their version has nothing on the 1971 original. Partly that’s because this adaptation feels much more suited to the down-to-earth, less polished feel of Dahl’s book, while Gene Wilder nails the role of the reclusive confectionary magnate who lets a small group of children into his factory, switching brilliantly between avuncular, withering and creepy.
Magic moment: When Gene Wilder throws away his walking stick.
A boatload of Oscars would arrive with the next film, The Return of the King, but here’s where Peter Jackson’s trilogy cohered as a triumph of cutting-edge technology and emotional impact. Andy Serkis’s Gollum—a fully fleshed digital creation—steals the show, yet this film also digs deep to depict the rallying redemption of King Théoden, from weeping at the grave of his son to leading the armies of Rohan into battle.
Magic moment: Gollum and Sméagol have a psychotic conversation and never once do you think about CGI.
An astonishingly poetic movie about the reunification of Germany and what it means to be human, Wim Wenders’s masterful Biblical fantasy uses the gothic landscapes of divided Berlin—shot in sparkling monochrome—as a backdrop for a vivid exploration of the dreamlife of angels.
Magic moment: Nothing can top that dizzying opening sequence, as two angels eavesdrop on the scattered thoughts of Berlin’s residents.
Bewitching and mesmerizing, Uncle Boonmee is a perfect film to lose yourself in. Directed by Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul (his Western friends just call him Joe), it unfolds in a reverie as Uncle Boonmee, a dying farmer, is visited in his final days by friends and family—his nephew and sister, but also the ghost of his dead wife and a red-eyed monkey-man who says he’s Boonmee’s son. Experimental and eccentric, it’s unforgettable.
Magic moment: The beautiful moment Uncle Boonmee visits a cave filled with sparkling lights, and his life slips away.
Pan’s Labyrinth may have won over the highbrow critics, but Hellboy II is fantasy director Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. Adapted from Mike Mignola’s comic books, this sequel to 2004's often-inspired Hellboy crams in all the psychotic fairies, marauding elves, fantastical landscapes and berserk action set-pieces you could possibly ask for.
Magic moment: The hidden “troll market” beneath the Brooklyn Bridge rivals the Star Wars cantina in the monster stakes.
In retelling Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story with Johnny Depp as the unfinished creation with scissors for hands, Tim Burton created a modern-day classic. It could all have turned out so differently if he’d gone with the studio’s choice of lead actor Tom Cruise—who wanted the story to have a “happier ending.”
Magic moment: From his castle hideaway, Edward creates a Christmas snowstorm.
A tornado blowing in over the Kansas plains, the tap-tap-tap of the ruby slippers, the yellow-brick road in glorious Technicolor and a witch the hue of alien snot. The best moments of The Wizard of Oz are woozily eerie, like memories of a dream. The staying power of the film might have something to do with the very real emotions underpinning the fantasy: the terror of being away from home, and the thrill of the big world outside.
Magic moment: The winged monkeys take flight under orders from the Wicked Witch of the West: “Fly, my pretties!”
It’s the wellspring of modern fantasy, but cinema’s track record when it comes to the King Arthur legend is pitiful, whether it’s the dippy musical fantasia Camelot or the dour, would-be-realism of King Arthur (and don’t even get us started on Guy Ritchie’s impending reboot). The only film that truly captures the grandeur of Arthurian myth is John Boorman’s intermittently ridiculous but cumulatively breathtaking Excalibur, the grittiest, earthiest British fantasy movie of them all.
Magic moment: Nicol Williamson’s bizarre, theatrical Merlin weaves a transformation spell.
It’s impossible to be 100 percent certain, but before this movie came out, we’re guessing it was no one’s fantasy to see through the eyes of oh-so-serious actor John Malkovich. A true original, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, this is the story of a puppeteer (John Cusack) whose temp job at an office on the 7 1/2 floor of a building gets unexpectedly interesting when he finds a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (whose deadpan weirdness is perfect for the film).
Magic moment: Malkovich crawls through the portal into his own mind, and everything goes, well, Malkovich—his female lunch companion, the waiter, the menu.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s second film on this list isn’t fantasy in the strictest sense. The story of a prima ballerina (Moira Shearer) and the power-mad Svengali (Anton Walbrook) who loves and exploits her, it takes place, for the most part, in the “real” world. But when the curtains go up and the ballet begins, the film spirals off into a world of dizzying make-believe, with Powell at the peak of his powers as he combines cinema, music, performance, art, costume and animation into a breathless whirl of sound and color.
Magic moment: The heartbreaking ending, as the performers recreate the titular ballet without their star dancer, just an empty space where she should have been.
The best fantasy movies: top ten
The first two Harry Potter movies were lifeless, slavishly recreating J.K. Rowling’s insanely popular novels and adding nothing but a slick Hollywood sheen. Enter Alfonso Cuaron, who adapted the third (and arguably weakest) of the books into a dizzying, visually sumptuous and barely-family-friendly magical romp that’s also a subtle meditation on youth, aging and the passage of time. The best kids’ movie of the 21st century? Likely.
Magic moment: The film’s quietest scene is also its most magical, as the kids hang out in the dorm room passing a bag of Bertie Bott’s beans and shooting the supernatural breeze.
A beautiful example of fantasy redeemed by deep philosophical underpinnings, Harold Ramis’s comic masterpiece follows a sour, cynical weatherman (who else but Bill Murray?) doomed to repeat the same day over and over again. After reaching the end of his patience, he slowly finds the will to better himself.
Magic moment: Our hero’s “perfect” day involves anticipating every stranger’s need, saving a life, wooing a woman and rhapsodising the annual Groundhog Day celebration by quoting Anton Chekhov.
A smash-hit in Japan, Hayao Miyazaki’s family fantasy is hands-down one of the most charming films ever made. It’s the story of two sisters who move with their dad to the sticks to be close to their sick mom, and there meet a big-bummed snuggly monster with a goofy toothpaste grin and a twelve-legged cat bus.
Magic moment: All aboard the feline express.
At first Powell & Pressburger’s towering film (also known as Stairway to Heaven) looks like a wartime romance, which partly it is. But once David Niven’s doomed pilot crashes while talking to an American radio operator (June Carter), he finds himself at the pearly gates, so introducing the film’s dual locations, earth and heaven. In the latter, a celestial court must decide if Niven’s pilot will be spared or not, and the film’s fantastical conceit taps into a postwar spirit of inquiry into how best to run our lives.
Magic moment: When we see the shimmering stairs that rise up to the heavens.
Haunting and inventive, this showed us the dark side of The Muppets ringmaster Jim Henson, who offered up a gothic world of magic and danger partly inspired by the Grimm fairytales. It’s a classic quest story: Jen, a Gelfling, must fulfil a prophecy and defeat the aging, decaying race of Skeksis in favor of the gentler, wiser Mystics. The film’s character design is as remarkable as its faith in the imagination of children.
Magic moment: When the Mystics and the Skeksis merge in a cosmic, psychedelic transformational orgy.
Nearly 70 years after its release, the magic of La Belle et la Bête still casts a spell. Poet-turned-director Jean Cocteau created hallucinatory reveries in his adaptation of the fairytale—most memorably the disembodied arms appearing through the walls of the Beast’s castle to hoist the candelabras lighting Belle’s path.
Magic moment: Belle cries tears of sparkling diamonds.
A high point not only of the consistently excellent output of Japan’s Studio Ghibli but of animation as a whole, this magical adventure turns the wanderings of a lonely ten-year-old girl into an updated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, complete with nods to ancient folklore and modern ecological anxieties. It’s still the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history.
Magic moment: Parents are transformed into pigs, and our heroine is truly on her own.
The greatest ghost story ever told on film, Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterfully macabre fable about two greedy peasants who try to profit from the civil war raging through their country gets more powerful as it slowly bleeds into the supernatural. A sense of the beyond creeps over the movie, as one of the men becomes enchanted with a mysterious noblewoman, taking leave of both his senses and his family in one fell swoop.
Magic moment: A lakeside picnic with a woman as eerie as the mist that creeps over the water.
What’s left to say about King Kong? As Peter Jackson proved a few years back: not very much. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s colonialist creature feature is still a stirring and tragic story about why the Empire State Building is such a terrible tourist trap.
Magic moment: The tragic finale: “Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
With his grand, globe-conquering adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s genre-defining trilogy, Peter Jackson dragged fantasy into the digital age, managing beyond all the odds to make it at least semicool in the process.
It may lack the blood and thunder of later installments, but the first Rings film has the most direct narrative—a road movie, essentially, from the rustic hush of the Shire to the forbidding shores of the Anduin—and the sweetest character moments, from Bilbo’s sad departure to Boromir’s sacrificial end. And that’s the reason why Jackson’s Rings movies work, and will continue to thrill moviegoers for generations to come: The characters are as important as the special effects. A simple tactic, perhaps, but a blindingly effective one.
Magic moment: The series’s greatest showdown, as Gandalf faces the fiery Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-Dum: “You! Shall! Not! Pass!”