Terry Gilliam played with the fantasy genre many times in films like Jabberwocky and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but his finest fantasy solo effort is Time Bandits, a darkly funny adventure about family, capitalism and the ineffability of the universe. Craig Warnock stars as Kevin, a young boy who accidentally winds up traveling through time with a group of thieving little people who stole a map of the universe, and it’s many time holes, from The Supreme Being himself. Kevin’s travels take him from Sherwood Forest to the Titanic, fighting minotaurs and Evil himself, played by a hilariously sinister David Warner. Sean Connery shows up as kindly King Agamemnon, who could just be the father figure Kevin’s been searching for this whole time, but the film’s twisted final moments keep Time Bandits from ever feeling treacly. It’s a nearly perfect combination of happy fantasy and mean-spirited comedy.
Lots of fantasy stories follow a child as they explore a fantasy realm of wonder, escaping their own dreary lives. But the fantasy realm of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is even more frightening than the real one, and the journeys of little Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) don’t teach her valuable lessons about self-actualization, they teach her that the world is a frightening place whether you escape it or not. Ofelia’s adventures in Spain after the Civil War find her retreating to a dark plane of magic that mirrors her own terrifying relationship to her fascist stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). When she’s sent to bed without supper, she’s transported to a horrible place with a Pale Man (Doug Jones) sits waiting for little children to steal his delicious smorgasbord of food, damning Ofelia if she feeds herself, damning her if she doesn’t. Pan’s Labyrinth turns the escapism of the fantasy genre on its head, and is already, easily, one of the greats.
Conan the Barbarian may not be the deepest cinematic experience in fantasy movie history, but it’s certainly the most badass. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role as Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero finds the morally ambiguous adventurer seeking justice for his clan, slain at the hands of cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), meeting the love of his life, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) – to whom he says only five words throughout the entire film – and, naturally, getting high and punching out a llama. Basil Poledouris’s unforgettable score elevates John Milius’s simplistic masculine power fantasy to an epic stature that few films have ever matched. Conan the Barbarian isn’t really “about” anything. It just creates a brawny, irresistible world of awe-inspiring adventure.
Stop-motion special effects legend Ray Harryhausen contributed to many films over the years, creating unforgettable giants and gods in films like Clash of the Titans and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, but while his work is always phenomenal, the movies themselves didn’t usually match his talents. Jason and the Argonauts is the exception. Don Chaffey’s loose adaptation of the classic myth, about a lost prince on a voyage to reclaim a magical golden fleece to help reclaim his homeland, moves at a fast clip, taking Jason (Todd Armstrong, dubbed by Tim Turner), Hercules (Nigel Green) and a crew of stalwart heroes into battles against a giant colossus, a hydra and an army of skeleton warriors, the latter of which remains one of the greatest visual effects sequences in history. Jason and the Argonauts is a blockbuster that plays just as well today, with epic moments that capture the film’s many monsters on a scale that modern fantasy movies rarely match.
Who says a great fantasy movie has to take itself seriously? The first original feature film from the British comedy troupe Monty Python (their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was just a collection of sketches from their TV show), Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the most quoted films of all time, with classic material like The Knights Who Say Ni and the Black Knight duel swiftly making their way into comedy history. But underneath the silliness is a clever dissection of both Arthurian myth and medieval culture, sucking the romance out of an era defined by poverty, religious zealotry and corruption. Monty Python portrays the quest for the Holy Grail as a pointless distraction from harsh reality, through a king more dedicated to symbolic gestures than his own starving people, to whom he shockingly, tragically, and totally unforgivably says… “Ni.”
Then again, maybe the quest for the Holy Grail is more important than Monty Python believes. That’s the way John Boorman plays it in Excalibur, the best movie ever made about the Knights of the Round Table. Nicol Williamson stars as Merlin, a wizard whose attempts to inspire greatness in Britain’s nobility are constantly undermined by their human frailties. The legendary deeds of King Arthur (Nigel Terry) lay the foundation of an idyllic kingdom, but his failings as a husband, pulling his attentions away from matters of state, nearly destroy it. Helen Mirren smolders as the evil Morgan Le Fay, the battles are unforgettably bloody, and Carl Off’s composition “Carmen Burana” pounds in the background, making all the magical set pieces feel impossibly significant, which indeed they are.
One of the earliest fantasy epics, and still one of the best, is The Thief of Bagdad, an adaptation of the classic tome Arabian Nights, a remake of a 1924 silent movie (which is also wonderful), and an early precursor to Aladdin. The film separates the main character into two people: a prince eager to woo a princess and an adventurous thief aiding him on his journey, strengthening the storyline with multiple viewpoints and keeping the action brisk. The visual effects use every single trick the 1940s had to offer, with giant practical sets and then-revolutionary photographic techniques that make the giant genie and flying carpet feel utterly magical. The Thief of Bagdad remains a milestone of fantasy storytelling, and watching it today you’ll wonder how they accomplished such a feat, and love every minute of it.
Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to fantasy, having directed childlike wonders such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, but his greatest action/adventure (so far) is Princess Mononoke, a spectacular tale of an exiled prince on a quest to lift a curse that gives him enormous power, but threatens to consume him with hate. Along the way he stumbles into a conflict between a mining community run by Lady Eboshi, whose rampant capitalism funds humanitarian efforts to free prostitutes and heal lepers, and the mysterious Princess Mononoke, a woman raised by wolf gods who would destroy Lady Eboshi to heal the forest she’s destroying in her wake. The animation is gorgeous, and even the English dub (written by famed fantasy author Neil Gaiman) is pretty exceptional, but it’s the film’s refusal to resort to easy answers, and its dedication to crafting complex characters, that makes Princess Mononoke one of the most emotional and enjoyable fantasy movies ever made.
Though light on action, The Wizard of Oz may be the quintessential fantasy epic, sending a young farm girl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) into a strange world of magic and monsters, on a quest to return home after wishing she could leave for just such a spectacular place. The figures in her life all return in a heightened fashion, with her curmudgeonly neighbor Margaret taking the form of The Wicked Witch of the West (whose iconic look all other movie witches have had to live up to, and sometimes even live down), and her farm hand friends joining in on the adventure as brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the cowardly lion, each searching to complete themselves. The songs are now a permanent part of popular culture, the messages still utterly relevant, and the idea of switching from black and white to color photography mid-movie, making Oz seem like a truly wondrous place, is so mindblowingly perfect that nowadays it’s hard to imagine that anyone had to think it up in the first place.
There are those who would suggest that The Wizard of Oz is the greatest fantasy movie ever made, at least without direction from Peter Jackson, and they may be right. But we think there’s just one greater. And that movie is…
It’s hard to believe now, but The Princess Bride, like The Wizard of Oz before it, was not an enormous success in its original theatrical run. But over time, and thanks to home video and repeated airings on television, it has become one of the defining motion pictures of a generation, a romantic, witty and thrilling fantasy classic. The main story is fairy tale simplicity itself: a captive princess-to-be, a band of roguish outlaws, a dashing pirate, scary monsters, an epic swordfight and an evil prince to be vanquished. True love overcoming impossible odds. Rob Reiner directs it all perfectly, thanks to an exceptional screenplay from William Goldman, adapting his own novel, that gives even the smallest characters an unforgettable personality and dialogue that will never cease to be quoted. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “As you wish.” “Inconceivable!” “Mawiage…”
But what makes The Princess Bride the greatest fantasy film, with The Lord of the Rings out of the equation at least, is the deceptively simple framing device. Peter Falk visits his sick grandson, Fred Savage, and against his wishes – the kid would rather be playing video games – reads him a timeless tale of fantasy and wonder. Initially unmoved, Falk skips the boring parts with all the love and exposition, getting right to “the good stuff,” echoing generations of storytelling evolution to keep fairy tales relevant to young audiences. And by the end, appreciating the power of fiction to truly move us, the boy not only wants to hear about the mushy kissing stuff, he wants his grandfather to read it all over again.
Fantasy stories will never die. They espouse the greatness in humanity through a universal symbology. Like The Princess Bride itself, their power will be rediscovered over and over again, changing just enough to keep new audiences enthralled, but keeping the important messages – the actual “good stuff” – intact, for as long as stories are told and retold. The old classics will live on, new classics will be made, and the magic will live on. Just like these films.