The best fantasy movies of all time

Gandalf versus The Balrog

Noble elves, mighty wizards, and dark lords too terrible to name, the fantasy genre is a favourite here at The Digital Fix, but it’s a difficult group of films to pin down. After all, what does fantasy really mean, beyond the fantastical? For example, no one would accuse The Avengers movies of being grounded in reality, yet I don’t think anyone would classify them as fantasy films, would they?

No, rather aptly, for a movie to truly be a fantasy film, it has to have an almost indefinable magic to it, a certain special quality that separates it from the more mundane (but no less beloved) genres of science fiction and horror. It’s probably best defined as having an essence of the fairy tale about it, as unhelpful as that is.

If you’ve found yourself lost and looking for a film to watch, then speak friend and enter this list, dear reader, because we’ve put together the perfect selection of the best fantasy movies. We’ve scoured the archives of Minas Tirith, the Restricted Section of Hogwarts library, and even under Tim Burton’s sofa cushions to find the ultimate fantasy movies. Enjoy…

What are the best fantasy movies of all time?

  • Time Bandits
  • Onward
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Labyrinth
  • The Princess Bride
  • Spirited Away
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • The Lord of the Rings

Time Bandits (1981)

Cast of Time Bandits

A self-indulgent choice perhaps, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was a video shop staple when I was growing up. A strange little film about time travel, family, and robbing historical figures, Time Bandits is a marvellously chaotic movie full of Monty Python-style gags that captures the spirit of being a child. It also features one of the bleakest endings of any film on this list, but that’s another story…

Onward (2020)

Ian and Barley in Onward

The first animated movie (and the only Pixar) to feature on the list, but by no means the last, Onward is an archetypical fantasy film about two brothers on a noble quest to spend one last day with their late father. While on their journey, the pair come to appreciate each other in ways they never expected and grow closer than ever before – classic heroes journey stuff.

Love Pixar? You need to read this list of the best Pixar movies

What makes Onward particularly notable though, is the strange world it builds – an odd blend of the modern and the fantastical, its heartbreaking story about the unique bond shared by siblings, and the breathtakingly quirky and creative visuals.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harrt Potter fights off the dementors

Harry Potter had to make an appearance on this list, and it was an easy choice. While all the Harry Potter films have something special about them, Prisoner of Azkaban is clearly the best of the movies.

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Director Alfonso Cuarón manages to tell a dark, emotionally complex, and satisfying story that maintains the magic established in the first two films while also pushing the series in a far more adult direction. Combine Cuarón’s technical wizardry with the all-star cast put together by his predecessor Chris Colombus, and you end up with something rather enchanting.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands

A suburban fairy tale wrapped in black leather but with a sugary sweet centre, Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s best movie. Basically, a romantic retelling of Frankenstein, this saccharine story of a man with scissors where his hands should be (rendering him incapable of touch) lovingly blends the macabre and melancholy through Burton’s unique gothic lens to haunting effect. Factor in Danny Elfman’s bewitching score and a Johnny Depp performance from when he actually cared, and you end up with something extraordinary.

Labyrinth (1986)

David Bowie in Labyrinth

Jim Henson’s famed for the way he brought fantastical creatures to life, be they a frog named Kermit or whatever the hell the Skeksis, but the nadir of his career had to be Labyrinth. Officially a box-office bomb, Labyrinth has gone on to become a cult classic and is widely recognised these days as one of the best fantasy films ever made.

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Like the best fairy tales, there’s an air of menace to the film, presumably because of all the puppets, and writer Terry Jone’s of Monty Python fame lends the film a cheeky sense of humour. Labyrinth is perhaps best known these days, though, for David Bowie’s memetic and magnetic portrayal of Jared, The Goblin King. He enchanted us all with his pelvic sorcery.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Buttercup and Westley from the Princess Bride

Not putting The Princess Bride on the list was inconceivable! A post-modern classic, The Princess Bride is a fun, stylish, swashbuckling adventure that also happens to be one of the most quotable movies ever made.

Adapted by William Goldman from his 1973 novel of the same name, director Rob Reiner managed to make of the most madcap fantasy films of all time that’s both fantastically funny and remarkably romantic at the same time.

Spirited Away (2001)

The cast of Spirited Away sit around a table

The story of Chihiro Ogino, a young girl who’s spirited away into the fantastical world of the Kami and ends up working in a bathhouse, has gone down in cinematic history as one of the most beautiful films ever. With its awe-inspiring animation, Hayao Miyazaki’s magical story, and the absorbing world-building, it’s probably Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece.

We also happen to think it’s one of the best animated movies as well. And remember, once you’ve met someone, you never really forget them…

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

the fawn and the little girl in Pan's Labyrinth

A dark fairytale set during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is a hauntingly beautiful and spell-binding movie that contrasts the human horrors of war with the literal monsters of the underworld.

Written and directed by the monster master Guillermo del Toro, the film’s memorable use of prosthetics and animatronics for the bizarre fairies, fawns, and fey creatures makes this film about the ethereal feel incredibly tangible.

The Wizard of Oz (1934)

Cast of Wizard of Oz

There’s no place like home, and there are few movies as iconic as The Wizard of Oz. A technicolour masterpiece, the film is a pop-culture juggernaut packed with memorable characters, excellent dialogue, and the catchiest songs this side of the yellow brick road.

The Wizard of Oz remains as watchable today as it was in 1934, thanks to an impeccable script that manages to be funny, scary, and full of wonder all at once, not to mention an astounding lead performance from Judy Garland, who was just 16 when she played Dorothy.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

The Fellowship stand ready in Lord of the Rings

Let’s address the oliphaunt in the room: yes, we lumped all three Lord of the Rings movies into one entry. It’s greedy, we know, but honestly, we couldn’t decide which one to feature on this list, so we decided to have our lembas bread and eat it too by putting in the whole trilogy.

Can you blame us, though? Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy books rank among the most ambitious, successful, and influential films ever made. With an all-star cast, exquisite production values, and that epic score, it all combines to bring Middle-Earth to life in a way previously thought impossible. Let’s just not talk about The Hobbit…

If you prefer your films a little more ‘explodey’ and a little less fantastical, why not check out our list of the best action movies.

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Tom Percival

Editor

Updated: Jun 14, 2021


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