The fantasy genre is a wide and popular one, but great fantasy films are few and far between. If you made a list of the greatest fantasy movies ever made you would wind up with mostly Harry Potter movies, Indiana Jones films and epic adventures directed by Peter Jackson, whose The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King remains the only fantasy movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
So, to avoid the obvious choices (and ring in the release of Jackson’s latest film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), CraveOnline is presenting The Top 25 (Other) Best Fantasy Movies Ever Made. These are the magical action adventure tales that aren’t a part of billion-dollar franchise, but contain all the thrills and wonder of their blockbuster counterparts. So dust off your swords, mount your dragons and scoop up your pixie dust. The first part of our series begins with…
25 - The Dark Crystal (dirs. Jim Henson & Frank Oz, 1982)
Marketed as the first live-action movie without a single human character, The Dark Crystal was Jim Henson’s attempt to move his world of puppetry into a more mature plane. The result was an eerie fantasy adventure about an elf-like Gelfling named Jen, prophesied to repair the magical “Dark Crystal” and end the reign of the evil, vulture-like Skeksis. The Dark Crystal contains unforgettable images, but the story is a little thin, and the protagonist approaches an uncanny valley level of realism, looking just human enough that you start to wonder why they didn’t just cast a real person in the lead role to help ground the film for the audiences who, in America at least, didn’t respond very well to a film populated entirely by puppets. Overseas, however, The Dark Crystal was a box office smash.
24 - The Beastmaster (dir. Don Coscarelli, 1982)
At the dawn of cable, The Beastmaster was on TV so often that “HBO” was frequently said to stand for, “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!” Don Coscarelli’s film captures the strange sweep of pulp fantasy fiction, telling a story of Dar (Marc Singer), a lost prince who reclaims his kingdom from the evil high priest Maax (Rip Torn) by using his magical ability to talk to animals. With a hawk, a black tiger, two mischievous ferrets and the sultry Tanya Roberts by his side, Dar undergoes a series of imaginative, violent and sexy trials that entertain without ever challenging the audience’s intelligence. The film spawned two bad sequels, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time and Beastmaster: The Eye of Braxus, and an also-bad TV series of the same name. Accept no substitutes. The original Beastmaster is where the magic is.
23 - Conan the Destroyer (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1984)
Though not nearly as good as the original Conan the Barbarian, Richard Fleischer’s 1984 sequel is nevertheless a rip-snorting adventure yarn with magical creatures, sexy virgin princesses and an uncredited Andre the Giant as the monster god Dagoth. Conan, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is sent on a mission to help a princess (Olivia D’Abo) find a magical artifact, and assembles a motley crew of fantasy badasses to assist him, like the wizard Mako and the Amazonian Grace Jones. The violence and sexuality have been toned way down, but Conan the Destroyer has a spirit of good old-fashioned adventure that’s perfect for a Saturday morning matinee.
22 - Ladyhawke (dir. Richard Donner, 1985)
Not to be confused with the New Zealand musician of the same name, Ladyhawke is a rousing 1985 medieval fantasy yarn from director Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie). Matthew Broderick stars as a thief who stumbles into the path of Rutger Hauer, a captain cursed to transform into a wolf every night, and his lady love Michelle Pfeiffer, cursed to transform into a hawk every day. Perpetually together, always apart, they team up to undo the curse and destroy the evil bishop who cast the tragic spell in the first place. Broderick seems miscast in any period piece, but Hauer and Pfeiffer could carry the film on their sheer charisma alone. They don’t have to. Donner’s film is an exciting and dramatic fairy tale.
21 - Willow (dir. Ron Howard, 1988)
After the Star Wars movies dried up – temporarily, anyway – George Lucas produced this old school fantasy epic, directed by a young Ron Howard. An infant princess, prophesied to overthrow the villainous Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), happens into the life of a Nelwyn named Willow (Warwick Davis), who must venture far from his village of little people and into the world of men to protect the child and become a great wizard. Val Kilmer co-stars as Madmartigan, the self-proclaimed “greatest swordsman who ever lived,” and he’s never been better in an action movie. The story is eerily reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, but the action sequences and special effects are still impressive to this day.
20 - How to Train Your Dragon (dirs. Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, 2010)
One of Dreamworks Animation’s best films, How to Train Your Dragon takes place in a fantasy universe where Vikings all speak with Scottish accents. Also, dragons are real. Jay Baruchel voices young Hiccup, the son of the clan leader, whose scrawny limbs and heightened intelligence make him an outcast in a society run by muscle alone. When Hiccup finds an injured dragon, he shirks tradition by making friends with it, risking the wrath of his people but ultimately leading the charge against the dragons’ leader, a massive behemoth called “Red Death.” How to Train Your Dragon is for kids, so the message of tolerance comes on a little strong, but the film doesn’t shy away from thrilling action sequences and a genuine sense of danger.
19 - Dragonslayer (dir. Matthew Robbins, 1981)
Visual effects have come a long way in the last 30 years, but there has still never been a dragon as fearsome, or as impressive, as Vermithrax Pejorative, the terrifying monster from Dragonslayer. A wizard (Ralph Richardson) has been enlisted to destroy the beast, which requires a human sacrifice twice a year, but when he dies unexpectedly, it’s up to his cocky apprentice (Peter MacNicol) to take his place. Naturally, he’s in over his head. The groundbreaking visual effects keep Dragonslayer feeling fresh, but the unexpectedly dark storyline is what makes the rest of the movie really stand out after all these years.
18 - The Lord of the Rings (dir. Ralph Bakshi, 1978)
Before Peter Jackson had high tech visual effects to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece to the big screen, animator Ralph Bakshi made this striking animated adaptation, which covers the first two books in the series in only 132 minutes. Yes, it feels a little rushed, but so much of the 1978 Lord of the Rings works that it’s only occasionally distracting, and some of the material Bakshi leaves in actually explains the story better than Jackson did. Using a glorious combination of 2D animation techniques, Bakshi creates a world of Middle Earth that’s expansive, beautiful and dangerous. (Plus, Anthony Daniels – the voice of C-3PO – plays Legolas.) Rankin/Bass completed the animated Tolkien adaptations with 1977’s The Hobbit and 1980’s The Return of the King, and they’re also fun to watch, but Bakshi’s version is so ambitious and successful that Jackson’s own acclaimed trilogy even pays direct homage to this movie several times.
17 - Return to Oz (dir. Walter Murch, 1985)
The only film ever directed by Walter Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now, is an extremely disturbing sequel to the 1939 fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz. Poor Dorothy Gale (now played by a young Fairuza Balk) keeps insisting that she went to a magical land called Oz, so her parents send her to a mental institution for electroshock therapy. Before the torture begins – or possibly right in the middle of it – Dorothy goes back to Oz, which has fallen into ruin under an evil sorceress with a hall of severed heads, and a king made of solid rock who has kidnapped all her old friends from the original film. Is this new story real or just the psychotic break of a very troubled little girl? Return to Oz never answers these questions. It just plays out in front of you, totally messed up and totally awesome.
16 - Legend (dir. Ridley Scott, 1985)
Ridley Scott may be more famous for sci-fi movies like Alien and Blade Runner, but in 1985 he tried his hand at a fantasy film about unicorns, elves and goblins. Tom Cruise stars as Jack, a wild child wooing a princess played by Mia Sara. When she makes the mistake of touching a unicorn, the balance of the world shatters and a giant red demon called The Darkness, played by Tim Curry underneath some truly amazing makeup, kidnaps and tries to corrupt her. It’s up to jack and a team of forest sprites to save the day. Chopped up in the editing room and rescored by Tangerine Dream in its initial release, Ridley Scott finally restored the film to its classier director’s cut in 2002, a version which makes more sense and reinstates Jerry Goldsmith’s original, and far superior orchestral themes. The 1985 version is pretty good. The director’s cut is phenomenal.
15 - Peter Pan (dir. P.J. Hogan, 2003)
The best cinematic version of J.M. Barrie’s eternally childish adventurer, P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan reimagines the character in an exciting adaptation with eye-popping visual effects and the scariest Captain Hook in history, played to perfection by Jason Isaacs. The Darling children are whisked away to Never Land so they’ll never have to grow up, but discover that the far off world of pirates and mermaids isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that maybe growing up is worth all the trouble after all. The flying sequences are incredible, the climactic swordfight is exciting as hell and James Newton Howard’s magical score has since been co-opted by Disney for all their TV commercials. The best part is where Captain Hook sees Peter Pan and Wendy dancing and actually tears up little, afraid that if Peter ever grows up, he’ll cease to exist.
14 - Wizards (dir. Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
Ralph Bakshi’s 1977 fantasy Wizards was overshadowed by the outlandish success of George Lucas’s Star Wars that same year, but has recently been rediscovered as an animated classic. In the distant future, after nuclear war has ravaged the planet, magic has returned to the world. But when the evil wizard Blackwolf discovers Nazi propaganda footage in the ruins of civilization, he uses the powerful new tool to muster an army and conquer the rest of world. A strangely humorous wizard named Avatar begins a quest to stop him, aided by an elf, a fairy and one of Blackwolf’s robots, now reprogrammed for good deeds. Originally titled Wizard Wars (it was changed at George Lucas’s request), Wizards is brimming with dark imagination, and ends in such a shockingly inevitable fashion that you may have to rewind it and watch it twice.
13 - The Sword and the Sorcerer (dir. Albert Pyun, 1982)
Mostly forgotten but totally awesome is Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer, a rousing, violent and sexy adventure tale if there ever was one. Lee Horsley stars as Talon, a long lost prince who returns to his kingdom but only agrees to overthrow the evil King Cromwell (Richard Lynch) in exchange for sexual favors from Princess Alana (Kathleen Beller). The story storms ahead at full blast, with exciting action sequences, torture, sorcery, sex and monsters galore, and the three-bladed gun sword is simply badass. It’s the best film ever made by Albert Pyun, who would sadly go on to direct some of the worst films ever made, like the awful 1990 version of Captain America. Pyun eventually made a sequel to The Sword and the Sorcerer in 2010, named Tales of An Ancient Empire, which stars Kevin Sorbo and Michael Paré. Stick to the original.
12 - Aladdin (dirs. Ron Clements & John Musker, 2002)
Although many Disney films clearly take place in a fantasy world, Aladdin is one of the few that also works as a great adventure, focusing on a dashing hero instead of a princess in desperate need of saving. Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger) is a local thief who falls in love with Princess Jasmine (voiced by Linda Larkin), but runs afoul of the sultan’s evil vizier Jafar (voiced by Jonathan Freeman), who wants Jasmine all to himself. Aladdin stumbles upon a magical flying carpet and a wisecracking genie (voiced by Robin Williams) and returns as a handsome prince to win Jasmine’s hand. Aladdin has been reevaluated in the last 20 years as racially insensitive – the hero is the whitest Arab in history, and Jafar is an ugly stereotype – but if you’re the forgiving sort, the film remains a magical adventure with impeccable animation, great songs and what may be the greatest comedy performance of Robin Williams’ career.
11 - The NeverEnding Story (dir. Wolfgang Peterson, 1994)
Wolfgang Peterson’s imaginative and dark adaptation of Michael Ende’s fantasy novel The NeverEnding Story is wonderfully meta tale of a meek young boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) who loses himself in a good book, gradually realizing that the incredible events happening within are actually going on as he turns the pages. Bastian’s book tells the story of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a pubescent but mighty warrior who travels the world of Fantasia, populated by characters from the imaginations of real people, to save the land from a destructive force called “The Nothing.” His adventures take him through strange lands, unique characters and meaningful messages about the power of fantasy literature itself. Plus, he gets to ride a really cool dragon. The NeverEnding Story spawned three terrible sequels. Avoid them at all costs.