The Hobbit is now only two weeks away from release, and upon it’s arrival it will doubtless ascend to a high place in the Fantasy Movie Canon. Needles to say, I’m excited about it.
And in celebration and anticipation of the imminent release of The Hobbit, I thought now would be a great time to delve into what I, personally, consider to be the Canon of Fantasy Cinema. This is not an exhaustive list, obviously, because I haven’t seen every fantasy movie ever. But it’s the list that exists in my own head and heart.
To do this, and limit the number of movies in my list to a reasonable number, I had to make a number of rules.
First: a complete movie series or cycle gets one entry. So, Harry Potter doesn’t fill eight movie slots. Many great fantasy movies are stand-alones, but several really high-quality ones exist as part of a series, so this rule was necessary to keep them from consuming the list alive.
Second: I’m only listing live-action movies here. There are tons, tons, TONS of great fantasy-themed animated movies. From classic Disney movies to the greats of anime and everything in between… I don’t think I could even begin to list them all in a coherent fashion. Since I’m celebrating the release of the live-action Hobbit, I thought it useful to limit my celebration to live-action movies.
Third: I’m trying to limit my selection to movies that got an actual theatrical release.
Fourth: I have to limit what I mean by “fantasy”. I’m talking about movies in which magic, the supernatural, or the mythical play an important part of the story. I’m not talking about superhero movies. I’m not talking about sci-fi movies. Generally, I’m not talking about holiday-themed (especially Christmas-themed) movies. I’m not talking about movies with spaceships, or weird and implausible science or people with mutations, or just anything that’s generally just unrealistic. I’m also not talking about horror or semi-horror movies. I love all sorts of movies in all of those categories, but I’m after a particular subset of this broader “fantasy” genre. I’m talking magic spells, wizards, dragons, fairies, myths and legends, and what-have-you of this sort.
So, with the rules out of the way… here it is (drumroll please):
The Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema
There can be little doubt that this movie series is rightfully ranked at the top of the Fantasy Canon. It was not only ground-breaking in terms of the technology used to tell the tale and the breathtaking visuals and the overall quality of the production itself… but it is a powerfully-moving adaptation of the the single-most genre-defining epic of fantasy literature.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy undeniably deserves the lion’s share of credit for creating the market for literary epic fantasy. Peter Jackson’s adaption proved that a fantasy movie could be not only good entertainment, but great art. These movies are the only ones on this list that won Academy Awards not only on technical merits, but for Best Movie and Best Director. It is, in a word, a masterpiece.
“As you wish.”
“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I could go on, but you get the idea. This movie is not a special effects extravaganza. The magic is subtle and amusing, but not overtly visual. It is not typically cited as a sumptuous feast for the eyes.
But on the strength of its script alone, and the amazingly perfect performances of its terrific cast, this is the only movie that can even come close to claiming the number-two spot on the Fantasy Canon list. Few movies have made so indelible an impact on the popular culture. Few movies warrant (or reward) relentless rewatching. Few movies are so amazingly quotable. Few movies rise to the level of The Princess Bride.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy may perhaps be the most honored movie on this list insofar as the Academy Awards are concerned. But The Wizard of Oz is perhaps one of the most recognizable and enduringly popular films of all, and ranks among the most decorated and honored. While it didn’t win a Best Picture Academy Award it did, unlike almost every other film on this list, get nominated (which really is, by itself, an honor). And it continues to get recognized as one of the greatest movies of any genre of all time.
The 1939 movie was so defining that it left an impact on the popular culture that can still be seen and felt today, nearly three-quarters of a century after its release. Every adaptation and interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s original stories is impacted by this movie. There are Tony Award-winning musicals (Wicked, which I’ve seen and is a terrific musical) that exist only because this movie exists. There’s even a latter-day prequel that’s about to come out (Oz: The Great and Powerful).
It’s had it’s impact on me, too. I still remember the first time I saw it. We didn’t watch a lot of black-and-white movies or classic movies growing up, but apparently this one was important enough that my dad made a big deal of it. So we gathered together to watch this old, classic, depressingly black-and-white movie. (As a note: I no longer have the same feelings about black-and-white stuff that I did in my childhood.) Imagine how impressed and awed I was as my dad waved his hand magically at the TV when Dorothy first awakes in Oz, and everything explodes in brilliant, even riotous color: brighter than anything I was then used to on television. It made me believe in the magic of the Wizard.
The Harry Potter movies are not adaptations without faults, let it be said. On a whole, their quality is uneven, though each of the eight movies is generally quite good and some of the entries in the series even border on great. On average, the movies get better with each entry as the actors portraying the lead parts get better at their craft.
Given these caveats, why do I rank these movies so highly on the list?
For the sheer audacity of trying to interpret a seven-book epic fantasy series with over a million words of fiction for the big screen. And for trying to maintain, throughout this process, some artistic cohesion and integrity and faithfulness to the books.
This was not an easy accomplishment, and if the films fell short of perfection, it was only because of how highly they aimed. That they came so close at all to achieving it is quite remarkable. The resulting series is a highly watchable and highly enjoyable epic fantasy series: there is magic, whimsy, adventure, danger, and love. In short, there is everything you need to have a good time enjoying a fantasy movie, and I’ll wager these films will stand the test of time.
For serious fans of fantasy in film, I’m sure the inclusion of this movie will come as no surprise. For the casual fans, this may be the first you’ve heard of it.
It has a plot that’s derivative of The Lord of the Rings… but in reverse: instead of taking the magic token into the heart of darkness to destroy it, the diminutive hero of Willow is trying to smuggle his magic token (in this case, a baby) as far away from the heart of darkness (the fortress of the evil queen Bavmorda) as he can take it, because the baby in question is prophesied to bring about the end of the evil queen’s reign.
Derivative or no, Willow really is a great movie. While not quite as quotable as The Princess Bride, it still has some really memorable and often hilarious moments. Try: “Go in the direction the bird is flying.” “He’s going back to the village!” “Ignore the bird; follow the river.”
Or: “I stole the baby from you while you were taking a peepee!”
Or: “What are you looking at?” “Your leg. I’d like to break it.”
Or: “That way!”
Or: “Not A Woman?!” “Gentelman… Meet Lug.”
Again, I could go on… but if you haven’t already seen Willow, none of these quotes will be nearly as funny to you. Combined with this quotable potential are some really snazzy special effects that were quite good back in the late 80s (and which even today are still pretty impressive): from a fire-breathing wyrm, to magical transmogrification, to a wizard’s deul with competing fireballs and ice blasts. And there are lots of awesome, old-school sword fights. So… if you love fantasy movies and if you haven’t already, you should take the time and watch it.
The Dark Crystal was truly Jim Henson (in collaboration with Brian Froud of Fairy fame) at his finest. These puppets are not your fuzzy green frogs or friendly neighborhood Fraggles. What Jim Henson brought us with The Dark Crystal was a fully-realized fantasy world totally independent of our own. It had its own flora and fauna, its own visual style, its own magic, its own sense of being. There has been almost nothing that rivals it on terms of visual imagination or creativity either before or since. I can still remember the awe I felt the first time I saw Aughra’s massive orrery swing into motion.
There are no human actors in the world of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal. Every character and every being in this elaborate fantasy is fully realized using honest-to-goodness puppetry. But they never feel like puppets. Every creature and every character feels fully alive.
The plot of The Dark Crystal isn’t spectacularly original: a diminutive elf-like hero has to go on a journey to destroy a powerful magical artifact that will otherwise allow a race of evil vultures to conquer and rule the world for a thousand years. But even if the plot isn’t fantastically original, this amazing movie will still keep you sucked in and wanting more.
This was not the first adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (not even the first live action adaptation). Nor was it the only film in this series. But it is the only one that I feel merits inclusion on this list.
Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” are children’s books, but of course that doesn’t mean they aren’t great fantasy stories. And the original book of the series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is one of the best. For one thing, the story of this one is different and more unique: it’s not a straightforward quest fantasy like so many others.
And of all the adaptations of the book that I’ve seen, this one ranks as very likely the best, and is likewise the best of the movies produced in this series of adaptations of Lewis’s books. It tells a complete tale, one that doesn’t need the additional movies to enjoy. And it fulfills the promise of magic that you would expect if you’d read the books. All in all, this movie was a delight to see, and for that reason, it deserves a place on this list.
A movie that many – even many fans of fantasy – may not be familiar with is the 1981 film Dragonslayer.
In this epic fantasy tale, a wizard’s apprentice takes it upon himself to slay the dragon that is terrorizing a medieval kingdom after the wizard’s death. The people of the kingdom have protected themselves from the ravages of the dragon by offering up their daughters as a sacrifice to the monster, chosen by lottery. But the kingdom is upturned when the King’s daughter, upon learning that her name has been excluded from the lottery, replaces all the lots with her own name, making the erstwhile Dragonslayer the King’s only hope.
It’s a classic dragon story ripped from the pages of mythology: but the movie delivers some genuinely unique twists on this ancient formula.
All that alone would not likely make this movie the classic that it deserves to be credited as, save for one critical element of the movie: Vermithrax Pejorative. That’s the name of the dragon from this movie. And even though the special effects are clearly dated by modern standards, Vermithrax stands as one of the greatest movie dragons – if not the greatest – of all time. The creature design, the modeling: this dragon felt real, and it really breathed fire. It was a true menace, and a true mythic monster. If you haven’t seen Dragonslayer, and you’re a fantasy fan, you owe it to yourself to pick it up and watch it. It’s truly one of the most underrated fantasy films ever.
I don’t know… there’s just something about David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” (which is quite catchy), and his bizarre and mesmerizing turn as the Goblin King. And all the Jim Henson creations, of course. There are also moments of surprising sadness and profoundly absurd whimsy.
I can’t say I’m surprised that Jim Henson and Brian Froud make two appearances on this list. That said, the creatures of the Labyrinth are all decidedly more muppet-like and are less refined than those found in the earlier The Dark Crystal. But still: imagination abounds, here, and powerfully so.
And when all is said and done, this is just a fun movie to watch.
What’s interesting about this movie is how compelling the protagonist is: she’s fully human and motivated throughout the movie by very human emotions. She’s not a typical, high-minded hero. She’s not out to save the world or defeat evil. She’s just trying to rescue her baby brother, who’s been stolen by the Goblin King. Not because she loves the little tyke, but because of more complex motivations including guilt and fear. She was responsible for the Goblins taking the baby in the first place, calling upon the Goblin King in a moment of resentment. The emotional depth of the character makes the story more interesting.
The story-within-a-story and the interplay between book and reader made The Neverending Story a strong metaphor for my own fantasy life, as a child. Given the enduring popularity of this film, I would venture to guess this is true for others as well.
For readers of fantasy literature, The Neverending Story is a resonant reflection of their inner lives: many fans of fantasy have reason to identify closely with the bullied Bastian, and recognize their experience of total immersion in the world of a fantasy novel that the movie portrays.
Fantasia itself is like the imagination of the fantasy fan: a shifting, unknowable, unmappable place, constantly surprising and constantly changing as new ideas and new discoveries are made. And it is a place that can’t exist without the engagement of the imagination. In the end, it’s a place that can’t exist without the imagination of the story’s true hero: the reader of the book.
This portrayal of the reader as hero makes The Neverending Story a unique and important entry in the Fantasy Cinema Canon.
Yes, I realize that there are actually four “Pirates” movies, not three. But, first of all, I haven’t seen the fourth movie and, second, the first three tell a complete, closed story arc. Regardless of the existence of a mostly unrelated fourth movie, that makes the first three “Pirates” movies a trilogy.
And, well… despite some unfortunate misfires, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy really is a rip-roaring and highly entertaining fantasy trilogy. Johnny Depp’s turn as the wildly eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow was both hilarious and engrossing. Don’t tell me you didn’t fall in love with the character the moment you first saw him on screen, perched atop the crow’s nest of his sinking skiff. Not to mention Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, plus Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Swan. All fantastic actors and truly memorable characters.
In fact, not since The Princess Bride has there been such a fantastic, funny, and engaging ensemble cast in a fantasy film. And so, despite some of the significant misfires in these movies, they still deserve to take a place on the Fantasy Canon.
While Draco, the heroic, good dragon of Dragonheart, doesn’t quite hold a candle to Vermithrax Pejorative, he is nonetheless a pretty spectacular cinema dragon (probably the third best to appear on screen; the second-best dragon having appeared in a mostly otherwise execrable non-fantasy flick that I won’t mention). Dragonheart tells a fantastic, traditional heroic tale in which good and evil struggle for the fate of a kingdom.
It’s not a groundbreaking or deep movie, there aren’t many surprises, and you could even argue that the script and plot are a tad trite. But it’s a movie that truly believes in the idea of dragons, and the fantastic world they represent.
And it did something else that was important and groundbreaking: Draco was the first fully computer-generated character with a speaking role in a theatrical film (voiced perfectly by Sean Connery, whose acting was also captured to provide Draco’s expressions). As such, he paved the way for Gollum and, ultimately for Smaug. And that deserves some recognition.
(Now, the less said about the uninspired Direct-to-Video sequel, the better.)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, and the original The Clash of the Titans aren’t strictly a single movie series: none are sequels or prequels or at all related to the others. But these three movies do hold something else very important in common: each is a classic of fantasy film on which Ray Harryhausen’s special effects genius was on display.
Ray Harryhausen is the pioneer of stop-motion animation, an early special effects technique that made some of the most amazing fantasy images possible for the first time.
Harryhausen made possible fantastic sword fights with animated skeletons and six-armed goddesses of destruction. He brought to life Medusa, the Cyclops, Pegasus and the Kraken. And he did these in an age when computer-generated graphics in movies was still a notion of science fiction, rather than movie science fact. His artistic and technological breakthroughs made possible the most amazing movie images of his day. And still today, his works have left their permanent mark on the popular culture. What more can be said but this:
“Release the Kraken!”
Honorable Mention: The Original Star Wars Trilogy
Per the original rules I set out at the start of this post, I couldn’t include the original “Star Wars” Trilogy. There are spaceships, lasers, and robots. All very non-fantasy things. Indeed, many people classify “Star Wars” as Sci Fi or, to be more exact, Space Opera.
But let’s be frank: “Star Wars” is a fantasy movie. There are magic swords, a wise mystic who guides the young hero (only to expire at an inopportune time, forcing the hero to step up), a beautiful princess and a dark lord. There’s a mysterious, magical power possessed by an ancient order of warrior-wizards. (Unexplained, of course, because we’re ignoring the Prequel Trilogy; the explanation there basically sucked, and didn’t make sense, anyway.) I could go on, but in short, the original “Star Wars” Trilogy had all the ingredients of a major Epic Fantasy movie series.
And of all the movies listed here, none can be said to have had as powerful an impact on the popular culture as “Star Wars”. No characters are more instantly recognizable and memorable as those from Star Wars.
So there you have it: the Not-At-All Official Canon of Fantasy Cinema. These are the movies that are must-see for fans of Fantasy.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. See them for yourself!
Speaking of… have you seen all of these movies? Would you order them differently? What movies did I miss that really should be included on the Fantasy Cinema Canon? Talk back in the comments and share your knowledge of Fantasy Movie Trivia.