Pan's Labyrinth

The 10 Best Fantasy Films

Though I don’t talk about it as often as horror, I really love fantasy. Dark fantasy, silly fantasy, musical fantasy, fantasy novels, fantasy games, fantasy art–the list goes on. It’s the idea of creating an entirely different world, or even an alternate version of our own, that I find so appealing.

Over at the Regretsy forums, someone was asking for the ten best fantasy films of all time. I went knee-jerk and threw a list together. Then I stood back and realized that I more or less stand by the list and could have fun getting into the thick of it in a longer form. Such is the ten minute genesis of my 10 Best Fantasy Film list that I’ll stand by even without including any Lord of the Rings or Star Wars entries.

Honorable Mentions:

  • I couldn’t find room for any Miyazaki or Disney on the list, which feels like more of an omission than it is. Just consider Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo right on the cusp of the list.
  • I have a strange fondness for Peggy Sue Got Married and Pleasantville. It’s the throwback nostalgia mixed with the time travelling “what if” fantasy that gets to me. And Kathleen Turner in the former. I just couldn’t bring myself to bump off better films for favorite films.
  • Tim Burton is a bit too fluid in his genres for me to throw in Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, or Nightmare Before Christmas as fantasy films. A dark fantasy list they might make, but not when the whole genre is considered.
  • Me, of all people, should have found room for a musical like The Wizard of Oz or Brigadoon. I didn’t.

10: Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Curse of the Cat People

Irena comes with a gift for the lonely little girl.

Curse of the Cat People gets a bad rap. It is a fantasy sequel to a horror film that focuses on the power of a child’s imagination through suggestion. The girl in question is the daughter of the cat woman’s husband and his new wife. She has no friends. Her parents are concerned when she begins to see a strange woman named Irena (the cat woman) in the woods behind their house. The girl also befriends a retired actress/recluse who teaches her fantasy and folklore.

Curse of the Cat People is almost the cinematic mold for future child-driven fantasies. Some of the films on this list might not even be able to exist if it weren’t for the quiet tale of a child’s imagination used as a tool for self-actualization against the wishes of her parents. When judged as a fantasy/character study, it’s hard to beat the strength of this film’s storytelling and visual vocabulary.

9: Willow (1988)


The evil queen in Willow does not fool around.

Consider Willow a surrogate for all those wild 1980s fantasy films targetted at all ages–Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, etc. It feels like if you’re interested in fantasy, one of those films appeals to you more than the others. For me, it’s Willow. I like the story and the setting.

More importantly to me now is the technical quality of the film. Willow is a beautiful movie. The makeup prosthetics still hold up today. The costumes are gorgeous. Even the digital effects mostly feel right in the context of the film. It’s just a sweet, feel good fantasy film in that swords and sorcery vein.

8: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

I’m a bit obsessed with Greek mythology. That culture really developed some wonderfully rich stories and characters. Jason, in particular, has a great story that was brought to life in Jason and the Argonauts. It’s an epic in the literal sense of the word.

In fact, that story–combined with Ray Harryhausen’s extraordinary stop motion animation–is what makes Jason and the Argonauts worth watching. The acting is serviceable, if a bit stiff, and the settings are ok. The editing of Harryhausen’s brilliant character designs and distinctive animation are in a class of their own. Even then, the story is the real star and it’s strong enough to carry the weight of the effects.

7: MirrorMask (2005)


The colors of industry--muted metallics, shadows, and dirt--define MirrorMask's fantasy.

This is one of those films that treads on a lot of the same territory as Curse of the Cat People. A teenage girl grows up in a traveling circus. When her mother becomes very ill, she enters a fantasy world of her own creation to reclaim the mythical MirrorMask and wake the slumbering queen. It’s not just an Alice fantasy. The fantasy is used to force the girl to wrestle with the difficulty of her own life and emotional health.

MirrorMask is slick. The acting is strong and the visuals are executed to dark and dreary perfection. Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the film is the flipped color scheme. When a child escapes into fantasy, we expect bright colors and friendly creatures. MirrorMask flips it. The girl grew up with the circus. Therefore, gray, black, brown, and metallic colors are foreign to her, not candy colored perfection. It’s just enough of a twist on the Wonderland/Oz formula to feel fresh and interesting.

6: The Exterminating Angel (1962)

The Exterminating Angel

Desperation takes over in a failed attempt to leave the dinner party.

The Exterminating Angel is an absurdist/surrealist masterpiece with a simple fantasy conceit. A group of upper class dinner party guests discover that they are physically incapable of leaving the room once the meal is finished. Over the course of a few days, their carefully constructed personalities begin to crumble when they cannot escape other humans for even a moment.

The fantasy of The Exterminating Angel is the backbone of the film. How the story unfolds is not exactly fantasy as you would expect it. For me, a good fantasy is defined by the world it creates. Writer/director Luis Bunuel twists something very simple into an unforgettable film.

5: Alice (1988)

Sometimes, fantasy is defined purely by how the story is told. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice is a perfect example of this. All Svanmajer does is portray Lewis Carroll’s story on film. Countless people have done their own Alice in Wonderland adaptations.

The difference here is execution. Kristyna Kohoutova, the young girl playing Alice, is the only actor in the film. Everything else is done with puppets, stop motion animation, and very clever editing. Alice is a film where the style becomes the substance. It exists to showcase the endless creativity of a modern master of animation.

4: Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Heavenly Creatures

Teenage girls become obsessed with their every fantasy in Heavenly Creatures.

Could I have chosen another Peter Jackson fantasy property for this list? Yes. Would I feel good about ignoring one of the more ingenious uses of fantasy to raise the stakes in reality? No.

Heavenly Creatures is a brutal, unsettling film about an unhealthy friendship between two New Zealand girls. They create a brilliant fantasy epic, but also use their new found alliance to conspire against their parents in a crime story ripped from the headlines. Most unsettling is Peter Jackson’s use of the one girl’s actual diary for voice over narration and insight into a truly damaged psyche. This is almost as dark as dark fantasy can get with all the beauty and splendor of the most elaborate sword and sorcery epics.

3: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth

The fawn does not let the young girl off easily.

I said “almost as dark as dark fantasy can get” for a good reason. Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War set Pan’s Labyrinth is a coin toss situation. Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Both are valid arguments. I’ve come down on the fantasy side of the argument because the otherworldly content sets the tone, not the real life horror.

What is not in question is the quality of this story. There’s a good reason that Pan’s Labyrinth picked up accolades and awards all over the world. It is probably the closest any film has ever come to distilling the essence of dark fantasy. The creature design, character development, and dueling plot lines based in reality and fantasy are so tight that it’s difficult to find even a minor flaw in the film’s logic. The story is incredibly moving and manages to make some very dark subject matter accessible to a wide audience.

2: Beauty and the Beast (1946)

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

It is a struggle for Belle to even look at her own reflection.

Jean Cocteau is one of my favorite playwrights/screenwriters/directors. His expansive and twisted take on the tale of Beauty and the Beast is breathtaking. Belle is a Cinderella figure, forced to slave away at the hands of her spoiled older siblings while her father works outside the home. Her father steals a rose from the beast’s garden for Belle, which results in Belle being sacrificed to the beast.

However, upon seeing Belle, the creature wishes to spoil her as his wife. He will lavish her in all the finery and praise her older siblings thrived on. Belle does not know what to do on a number of levels. The appearance of the beast is the least of her concerns as she comes to terms with everything she has suffered through in life. Cocteau’s take on Beauty and the Beast would be unbearable melodramatic pulp in anyone else’s hands. Good thing he came up with this brilliant treatment of the story and did everything himself.

1: The Seventh Seal (1957)

It figures that I would choose something as bleak as a meditation on life, death, and the existence of God by way of a fantasy chess match as the best fantasy film. What can I say? Happy fantasy doesn’t do as much for me as the darker, meatier stuff.

I’m not afraid to call Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal a masterpiece. The conceit–a dark game with the devil–is an old one, but it works wonders in context. It almost makes the somber setting more bearable. The man playing the game is a knight during the height of the bubonic plague. People are literally starving to death around him as his interactions with death unfold. It’s an expansive look at a great number of historical, social, and philosophical issues through the lens of an ancient conceit of fantasy.

This is the part where you get to tell me how wrong I am. What did I miss? Where am I completely off track? What…more cheerful fantasy masterpiece am I missing? And why do I let a fantastic Kathleen Turner performance convince me that Peggy Sue Got Married is a great film? Sound off below.

  • Dan Rowbottom

    I love this top 10, great choices. For me though, it’d have to be Dark Crystal over Willow. As for missing films, does Terry Gilliam’s work not count? Timebandits or Baron Munchausen surely?

    • Robert

      I completely forgot Gilliam. Baron could easily play in this list.

  • Mette

    Very nice list. I haven’t seen many of these, but I’m very happy you included Beauty and the Beast and Heavenly Creatures. My favorite fantasy movie(s) are definitely the Lord of the Rings movies but I’m glad you stepped away from the beaten track and featured some smaller movies.