Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Favorite Films: Fantasy Films

People often connect fantasy with science fiction because they are idiots. Fantasy is something completely different and good fantasy is pretty rare. Let’s see what we can do to identify some...

1. Conan the Barbarian (1982): This movie is brilliant. It's a solid action film that has an amazing Zen to it. The film flows like the sound of one hand clapping and then driving a sword through you. It is a deep film, packed with philosophy, drama and the things that ignite characters on film: an orphaned warrior lost in the world, friendship, love, a father's love for his daughter, a King who is helpless to act against a more popular foe, a villain who seems to have grown as a person to the point of near enlightenment only to discover that he grew crooked and his villainy is many times worse, etc. It is a film you can watch when you want some rousing action. It is a film you can watch when you want a thoughtful film. It is a film you can watch when you want to explore by proxy the relationships in your life. It is amazingly beautifully shot. And it has the best soundtrack of any film... ever. In fact, you can close your eyes and just listen to the score and fall in love with this film. Awesome. It’s clear how this made Arnold into a star. The sequel and Red Sonya are entertaining too, though they are very different.

2. Army of Darkness (1992): What can I say? This film is awesome. A great story, a great actor and fantastically quotable dialog!

3. Dragonslayer (1981): A darker version of fantasy films, this story of an apprentice magician who kills a dragon is interesting and complex, and unlike many fantasy films, it involves an actual plot.

4. Krull (1983): This movie has an amazing cast before they were famous and a great story as it mixes science fiction with fantasy.

5. The Lord of the Rings (1978): This quasi-animated film which covers only the first of the three books was an incredible adaptation of the books. This version is so much better than Jackson’s version in a great many ways.

6. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003): While I am not a fan of these films from a lost-potential perspective, they are well done, if lifeless, fantasy.

7. Harry Potter (2001, 2002, 2005): The first two films (and kind of the fourth) really captured the spirit of Harry Potter perfectly. A mix of wonder, exploration and good verses evil, these are great films. The others are dull and dark and monotone.

8. The Hobbit (1977): I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better adaptation of a book than this, and this is the gold standard for The Hobbit on film. Not only does this stay true to the books, but it captures the spirit, the feel, and the images the book presents. The new Peter Jackson version is crap.

9. Dragonheart (1986): Who knew you could come up with a sort of heist film involving a dragon? This is a good one.

10. Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005): Yes, a made-for-television movie makes my list. Why? Because this film really captured the feel of what Dungeons and Dragons is about, unlike all the big budget efforts preceding it, which all failed so miserably.

I don’t know if The Mummy or Labyrinth are fantasy or not, but they should probably be on the list. I would also add Jet Li’s Hero, though people probably don’t connect that with fantasy, which is normally European-based.

A couple of omissions though: I used to love The Dark Crystal, but it hasn’t stood up over time, Willow wore on me fast too, and I found the Narnia series to be workmanlike and dull.



Kit said...

Labyrinth is amazing.

The 3rd Harry Potter is probably my favorite of the films (sorry, Andrew). John Williams' score for the first 3 is amazing. I'm rather upset they didn't keep it for the last few movies. Luna Lovegood was my favorite character in the movies.

Narnia, Lucy was a rather interesting character, curious and sweet. Edmund was a brat who seemed to only exist to be saved by Jesus Chri— I mean Aslan. I remember Susan and Peter existing. I've seen 1 and 3 and they felt rather meh. Especially 3. Never saw Prince Jonas. ;-)

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy will always hold a special place in my heart.

I've heard lots good about Return to Oz but never seen it.

AndrewPrice said...

You kids and your Lord of the Rings!!

Kit said...

Andrew, for us Millennials it was bigger and more epic than anything we'd ever seen before.

Tennessee Jed said...

I am either proud or ashamed (not sure which) to say I'm having trouble coming up with ten at the moment, but I will say the first two that come to mind are Fantasia, and The Sevent Seal

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, For my people, we had already seen a lot better and these came along at a point when films were starting to go substance-free.

Tohokari-Steel said...

Fantasy, in general, tends to be rather vague term. I've seen people put things like Lion King under that area...even though the most fantastic element was a ghost lion communicating with his offspring...and nothing else. I tend to have a stricter view on what makes fantasy and what doesn't, though.

When it comes to fantasy, I find that it turns out better in printed form, but when it gets it right in movies, it knocks it right out of the park.

My favorite fantasy movies include the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Crystal, Wizard of Oz, the original Clash of the Titans (HATE the remake with a burning passion), Princess Mononoke (I call it "What happens when an environmental movie acts smart"), and many, MANY Disney movies.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This isn't an easy category at first glance. It takes some thinking.

AndrewPrice said...

Tohokari, I'm amazed what people will toss into the fantasy category. It seems that anything even slightly not-real becomes fantasy. Personally, I tend to think of fantasy as knights, dragons, swords and wizards and the such.

I despise the remake of Clash of the Titans.

Tennessee Jed said...

if you include animation, I'd have to say Alice in Wonderland is huge. Ghostbusters is great in a somewhat non-traditional interpretation.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

1. Mary Poppins (1964) -- I'd still love to jump in a chalk drawing and while-away the afternoon. Pity I can't.

2. Pan's Labyrinth -- I liked it. I understand why some don't, but the visuals and the creep factor make it great.

3. Excalibur (1981) -- the best Arthur movie and though it could use a good updating it holds up all right.

4. Time Bandits

5. The Fisher King -- maybe not an official fantasy film and its fantasy elements are a result of the delusions of a mentally ill man, but a great job by Jeff Bridges and a tour de force by the late Michael Jeter.

6. (LOTR and Hobbit -- natch)

7. The Wizard of Oz (Return to Oz was good) -- accept no substitutes though and still the greatest song written in the 20th century,

8. Forrest Gump -- it's a lot of things -- including a fantasy movie. Black Panther beat down is my favorite movie scene -- ever.

9. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

10. The Clash of the Titans (1981) -- Ray Harryhausen genius!

11. Groundhog Day

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I wasn't sure if Alice should count or not, but I do enjoy that a lot.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, You're definitely using a much broader definition than I am. That said, I love Jason and the Argonauts! Clash of the Titans is fantastic too.

Dave Olson said...

In general, I stay away from "Fantasy" as most people define it. There are exceptions, of course. Chief among them are classics like The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. (As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, it's not a Science Fiction film per se; it's a Space Fantasy film.) I've never read beyond the first few pages of Tolkien, and I never played Dungeons and Dragons, so the "Fantasy" genre leaves me cold. Put simply, orcs, goblins, wizards, dragons, and all that crap just don't interest me. Give me habitation modules, tesseracts, mass drivers, and nuclear thermal rockets if you want to "float my boat", so to speak.

Again, exceptions. The first Conan movie was great. It had some fantasy elements but there was enough depth of philosophy and adventure to keep my interest. The second film wasn't nearly as good (or deep), and I never saw Red Sonja because I didn't want to spend two hours watching Brigitte Nielsen stomp around looking pissy.

I remember liking Krull at the time but I suspect that it won't hold up, like the aforementioned Dark Crystal and Willow. I mean seriously, if those horses can run so fast their hooves catch fire, how can they be captured by a couple of guys with ropes? Wait a sec, checking Netflix...nope, not there. But they do have Conan the Destroyer.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Forrest Gump is probably more of an alternate history. I think Mary Poppins is definitely a fantasy film as is Groundhog Day (given the fantastical -- is it sci-fi? -- nature of the repeated day.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure has elements of fantasy in it too.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, There is a real change between the Conan films. The first one is like a symphony and the second is like a transistor radio. It's basically just a stripped down action flick. Red Sonya has a very similar vibe.

Krull has held up pretty well given the lack of real competition.

Kit said...

I would add Darby O'Gill and the Little People.

For animated, most of Disney and Miyazaki'sSpirited Away. Princess Mononoke was good, too.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I think it depends on the definition. Is fantasy just anything unreal or does it imply more? To me, it implies more, otherwise it's kind of meaningless as a category and basically just mimics "fiction."

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I don't know that one (Darby) and I've only seen a little of the other two.

Tennessee Jed said...

you kids and your swords, dragons, and wizards (l.o.l.!) Maybe a td limiting, but I'd grant that probably tracks with the modern general perception. It is not my strongest genre. I did see Conan, and several of the Harry Potters, but it tends to be a genr for youth, and they didn't make a lot of good ones in my early days. I remember Steve Reeeves in Hercules, and ulysses. They were mosly "B" movies on Saturday matinees.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I get the sense that fantasy, like science fiction, is a relatively new genre... unless you count old stories like Ivanhoe and the Arthur stuff. But those things tend to have a fairy tale or myth quality to them rather than a fantasy quality. So until probably the 1970s, you just don't see much fantasy in the sense of swords and wizards.

Kit said...


Darby O'Gill and the Little People is a underrated gem of a movie. Its a Disney live-action movie set in Ireland about an old man who is trying to win the pot of gold from the king of the Leprauchans ("Little People"). It also stars a pre-James Bond Sean Connery, who sings at one point. Highlights include a magnificent fiddle scene and a creepy Banshee.

An underrated family film and perfect for St. Patrick's Day.

A 30sec 1977 re-release trailer:

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I remember seeing an ad for this in the 1970s, but I never saw the film itself.

Kit said...

More on Darby O'Gill. It stars Albert Sharpe as Darby and he is utterly enjoyable with a childish charm as the lead and makes the movie incredible fun. Janet Munro is the perfect adorable girl-next-door as Darby's daughter who is wooed by Sean Connery. Connery is also fun. And he sings! (No, its not a musical)

The effects, in my opinion, still mostly hold-up pretty well today. A few glitches but nothing to distract from its enjoyment. And as I stated above there are some creepy moments but also some really fun moments.

So, yeah, criminally underrated classic Disney movie.

Kit said...

Oh, how could I forget Mary Poppins! They talk to anthropomorphic penguins and Mary has a handbag apparently made with Time Lord technology. Its a fantasy movie. And a great one. One of the best musicals, too!

And maybe Disney's best live action movie.

tryanmax said...

People often connect fantasy with science fiction because they are idiots.


tryanmax said...

Lots of great films already mentioned. All I can add are The Princess Bride, the two-part made-for-TV Alice in Wonderland, and Pete's Dragon.

Jason said...

Some titles I haven’t seen yet but I imagine I’d rank high, like the first Conan. I did see Red Sonja, which I’d probably classify as silly fun. It’s not a very deep movie. It’s more of a “pulp” kind of tale, with lots of swordfights, questing, and a pretty cool enemy fortress that blows up real good at the end. I also picked up a VHS copy of Darby O’ Gill from a library sale, but haven’t sat down to watch it yet.

Of the Harry Potter films, I’ve only seen each once, so going off my memories, I’d probably say I liked 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 the most. My big bugaboo with that series is that it took so long to get the storyline moving. I liked the last three in particular because *finally* I was learning stuff about Snape, Dumbledore, how Voldemort parceled out his soul into horcruxes, etc.

I don’t think anyone has mentioned Ridley Scott’s Legend. I wouldn’t call it a favorite, but it’s certainly an interesting stab at the genre, and Tim Curry is awesome as the devil-like Darkness.

Star Wars was George Lucas’ attempt to update sci-fi film serials for the modern age, and Indiana Jones did the same for pulp-hero serials like Zorro, and I think Lucas wanted Willow to do that for “straight fantasy,” but in this case it was too obvious. The movie absolutely looked like Lucas was borrowing from Snow White, the story of Moses, and especially Tolkien. The movie was also too slow in spots. And did anyone notice that Lucas named certain villains after movie critics? General Kael is named for Pauline Kael, and the two-headed monster, the Eborsisk, is named after Siskel and Ebert!

Jason said...

My favorite fantasy flick would have to be The Neverending Story (The sequel is mediocre, the third is crap). The Dark Crystal would be my number two. I’ve never seen anything with Jim Henson’s name on it be so epic and solemn; you usually think of the Muppets, the Fraggles, etc. It makes me wonder what he would have done had he not died so soon. Others on my list, if I just count live-action films, would include The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz, Jumanji, Dragonheart, Labyrinth, Big Trouble in Little China, Highlander (only the first, NOT the sequels), Jason and the Argonauts, Hercules (the first Steve Reeves film), Army of Darkness, Peter Pan (2003) and the first Narnia film.

Animated fantasy flicks would include NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, the Disney Alice in Wonderland, The Black Cauldron (I know some people don’t think it’s a good adaptation of the Lloyd Alexander books, but I still enjoyed them), The Sword in the Stone, Sleeping Beauty, and the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit.

P.S. Dragonheart came out in 1996, not 1986. :)

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - you are the same age as my oldest son, so I can get the whole "dungeons & dragons" timing of this genre.

Kit - I never realized how much you hated Darby O'Gill & the Little People ;) I remember that one. Probably not Disney's gratest, but pretty good, and worthwhile from the young Connery angle alone.

Tryanmax - I totally agree on Princess Bride even though it probably doesn't fit the strict definition applied here.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I love Mary Poppins. It's a fun film.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I am all about bombast! :D

I haven't heard anyone mention Pete's Dragon in years!! Good call!

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I feel the same about Legend. It was an interesting film and I enjoyed it (and enjoy it today), but somehow it doesn't quite rank as a favorite.

Nice description on Willow. It felt like a copy of something and they made such a big deal to make it an event that the whole thing kind of fell flat fast.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I really do get the sense that Dungeons and Dragons invented this genre.

PikeBishop said...

My favorite fantasy (my definition: completely devoid of any elements of reality) has to be "An Inconvenient Truth."

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I would agree, but that one really needed an Orc battle in the final reel... with the Orcs winning.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew, yes and that totally boring, wooden main character. My God the first 20 minutes is just him bitching about his life. "Shut up and get on with it Gandalf!"

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, That was the least believable robot I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if this qualifies, but Mary Poppins made me think of it:

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Maybe not "great" compared to other films mentioned here, but a fair amount of fun in its own right.

Backthrow said...

I personally divide Fantasy movies into two camps:

A.) Mythical adventure yarns like Conan, Harryhausen's Jason and Sinbad flicks, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Krull, et al. They have to have heavy elements of magic and/or mythical monsters in them, and not just sword-wielding guys in funny hats, chasing each other around, and no attempts to explain it all with science.

B.) Comedies/dramas that are built around a magical/supernatural/fantastical premise that isn't explained away with made-up science and aren't primarily designed to be scary (or else they'd be horror movies).

So, with that, I'd say:

CONAN (1982)
HARRY POTTER series (2001-2011)
LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy (2001-2003)

--I'd include a lot of fully-animated films, too, but since the majority of them are outright Fantasy-themed anyway, it's easier to just put them in their own category, governed by their technique rather than their content... but I'd count ROGER RABBIT as straight Fantasy here, due to it being mainly a live-action film with a bunch of cartoon characters running loose in it.

Backthrow said...

Oh, by the way, KUNG FU HUSTLE's Stephen Chow recently made a big comedy/fantasy/adventure film, JOURNEY TO THE WEST, loosely based on the 'Monkey King' legend. Netflix is supposed to have it available for rental at the end of this month... on disc, at least... streaming is probably sometime later. I'm really looking forward to it; hopefully it's at least half as fun as HUSTLE was.

Anthony said...

My favorite fantasy move is Pan's Labyrinth. I also really enjoyed Miyazaki's Spirited Away and Peter Jackson's LOTR movies (I think the movies were better than the books).

I don't know how I'd rank it against theatrical releases, but I really enjoyed the Merlin tv movie back when I saw it in the 90's.

Anonymous said...

I second Anon's mention of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

I tell this to people who are trying to get me to watch Game of Thrones: "Fantasy isn't my bag!" Even after I saw Conan the Barbarian for the first time just a few years ago, I realized I enjoyed it but that I simply wasn't interested in that genre. A cynic might ask, "Well, if it took place in the future on spaceships, would you like it?" and my honest answer is "Maybe." :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but I don't remember much from it.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I definitely enjoy the Sinbad films.

shawn said...

"Excalibur" It and "Conan the Barbarian" are the epitome of sword and sorcery.

"Deathstalker" while low budget, has some excellent moments (mostly due to the lovely Miss Barbi Benton).

I remember "The Barbarian Brothers" being some ludicrous fun.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I think I remember that -- it was with Sam Neill, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, So you would enjoy Conan The Jedi Knight?

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I recall a lot of Rutger Hauer sword and sorcery type films from the 1980s too that I enjoy. There have been some fun, but not well done films in this genre.

tryanmax said...

A thought in how u would separate fantasy and sci-fi. Fantasy takes place in a world operating by rules fundamentally different from our own. Sci-fi takes place in our world ostensibly but has advanced the technology and/or timeline (hence distopia falling under sci-fi.)

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Maybe. But isn't that called Star Wars? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I get the feeling there is no real way to define the difference. In the broadest sense, you are correct -- science fiction lives in a world of physics but has a different level of technology than we currently do, whereas fantasy lives in world outside of physics.

But that still doesn't really do much to narrow fantasy down. I think that is the real problem that some people see fantasy any involving anything extraordinary and others see it as having specific elements. I'm not saying either is right or wrong, but if a person expects swords and sorcery when they say "fantasy" and you offer then Big, then there is a huge disconnect.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's probably who Lucas would have cast today... or maybe some awful choice like Samuel L Jackson.

Mycroft said...

For a really cheesy good 80's fantasy, I would suggest The Sword and the Sorcerer. It had a 3-bladed sword and the sorcerer was played by Richard Moll under a ton of makeup.
And while the magic amounted to only poison and hypnosis, I've always been fond of The Court Jester.

Rustbelt said...

Hm... interesting that you should list your fantasy list on this particular date, Andrew.

(4th May, Jonathan Harker's Journal)
Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: "Must you go? Oh! Young Herr, must you go?" She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what German she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all. I was just able to follow her by asking many questions. When I told her that I must go at once, and that I was engaged on important business, she asked again:

"Do you know what day it is?" I answered that it was the fourth of May. She shook her head as she said again:

"Oh, yes! I know that! I know that, but do you know what day it is?"

On my saying that I did not understand, she went on:

"It is the eve of St. George's Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?"

-from Bram Stoker's "Dracula"

AndrewPrice said...

Mycroft, I enjoyed that one a lot. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I have no idea what you are talking about! ;-P I deny everything.

Rustbelt said...

It's just one of my favorite books, Andrew. What with the date, the fantasy theme, and everything...I just couldn't resist!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately there isn't enough good Fantasy, it got me into reading as a kid. Most Fantasy movies just don't get it at all. I've probably forgotten a few average ones I saw in the 80s but maybe it's better that way.

Conan The Barbarian (it amazed the young me),
Army Of Darkness (classic, see this many times, love to quote it),
Highlander (great movie with a strong fantasy element),
HellBoy (great fun and Nazis!, good sequel),
LadyHawke (fantasy, good acting, love story..),
Pan's Labyrinth (fantasy with a story?),
Excalibur (love King Arthur story and this was great),
The Beastmaster (cheese!),
Lord Of The Rings (looks amazing, didn't live up to the book, better then the Hobbit movies),
Willow (I do like it),
Big Trouble In Little China (fantasy, comedy, action greatenss),
Flash Gordon (largely sci-fi it does have a big fantasy element),
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (fantasy martial arts),
Underworld (vampires are fantasy right? Big dumb action movies),


AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, It is an underrated book indeed. I wish people would look to the original more than they look to the Hollywood version.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, "there isn't enough good Fantasy" -- I totally agree.

Nice additions, especially Crouching Tiger and LadyHawke. That was kind of the gold standard at one point.

Kit said...

I think the deference between fantasy and horror might be degrees of supernatural elements. And I think there is an overlap between, say, dark fantasy and horror.

Unknown said...

I agree with Kit: if fantasy is a genre encompassing more than swords and sorcery, then a good way to distinguish it from more general fiction and non-reality is the explicit presence of the supernatural. Rather than degree of supernatural, I would suggest it is the type that is distinctive: fantasy incorporates the non-contemporary supernatural (or one might even say "non-Christian", given the predominant contemporary western religion). In other words. the supernatural elements involve things most people don't believe in any more. Or as fairy tales and myths sometimes put it, "Once upon a time, in the days when magic still worked and gods roamed the earth..."

The supernatural elements in horror, by contrast, need to have some contemporary resonance (devils, spirits, lost souls, ghosts, demons, evil, hell...) in order to be scary. At the other extreme, this explains why (for example), films like Bruce Almighty and It's a Wonderful Life are not considered part of the fantasy genre. A film involving heaven or hell, God or the Devil, angels or demons, could be a comedy, a drama or a horror film, with the supernatural as a story-telling device. Change the setting to Valhalla, Hades or Oz, with a polytheistic panthenon or witches and magicians in place of angels and demons, and the film becomes a fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Do movies set in a dream world count as fantasy? I'd just like to mention The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Maybe a cult classic, at best, but the sets alone were a fantastic representation of the Seussian aesthetic. And how can you not like Hans Conried?

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