This season’s big contender in the fantasy genre is Fantastic Beasts, showing Saturday, February 11, 7 pm, at Loew Auditorium. To whet your appetite, here’s a look at some of the great representatives of that category!
Sebastian Wurzrainer ‘20
Fantasy films are hard to make. Really hard. Perhaps their closest companion, genre-wise, is science fiction, but the elements of most sci-fi films have some basis in the real world. Take a laser gun, for instance. We know about guns and we know about lasers, so now the job of the filmmaker is just to combine the two to make a classic piece of sci-fi weaponry.
But there is no real-world basis for most of the things we see in fantasy. Various cultures have obviously speculated over the years as to what an elf, for example, might look like, and those cultural ideas can and have influenced a number of designs used in popular works of fantasy. But fundamentally, an elf could look like anything and you couldn’t technically claim that it wasn’t an elf.
This freedom can be both a blessing and a curse. Some films go too far, so obsessed with the potential for creativity that they forget to meld it all into an interesting story. Yet other films have the exact opposite problem, playing everything too safe and going with the most stock designs and ideas available in the hopes that the audience won’t feel alienated. And then there are those films which manage to strike the perfect balance; creative yet accessible, outlandish yet relatable. It is those films that we are here to celebrate.
I should note a little caveat: If this list were titled “My Top 10 Favorite Fantasy Films” it would look entirely different; likewise if it were titled “The Top 10 Most Influential Fantasy Films.” It seems unreasonable to exclude my opinion entirely from the equation, yet it also seems unfair to deny a highly influential film a spot on this list just because of my personal taste. So I have compromised, attempting to run this list through both filters, finding those gems that I love yet that also happen to be culturally important.
10. Labyrinth (1986)
Labyrinth is not a perfect film. Far from it. The story doesn’t always progress in a particularly flowing manner and some scenes just don’t fit in the overall context of the film. But the film is rather like its star, David Bowie: magnetic. Whether you fully understand what’s going on or not, your eyes can’t help but be glued to the screen. From Jim Henson’s masterful puppet work to the soundtrack laced with Bowie songs, Labyrinth is quintessential ‘80s fantasy in the best way possible. But for all the elements that feel a touch outdated, it still possesses a timelessness that has allowed it to endure longer than so many of its peers. Perhaps the best comparison really is to Bowie himself as the Goblin King. His clothing and hairstyle are so obviously a product of the time, yet his demeanor and performance are so intriguing and have such presence that they make you forget the fact that he still kind of looks like an ‘80s rock star. And ultimately that’s the best way to describe Labyrinth: it doesn’t always work but that won’t stop us from returning to it again and again.
9. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Roger Ebert said in his review of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that it “is probably the best film of its sort since The Wizard of Oz.” I doubt anyone who grew up with this movie would disagree with him. Willy Wonka was the first ever film adaptation of a Roald Dahl book and it remains to this day the only one that properly manages to capture the spirit of that author’s genius. Dahl understood that kids are intelligent and thoughtful and shouldn’t be shielded from darker truths. But he was also a brilliant creator of original worlds and ideas, infusing them with quirks and oddities that only he could have conceived.
What is so impressive about this particular film adaptation is that it was made by people with no real money or even that much experience in making this kind of film. As a result, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory now looks a little unpolished and rough around the edges. Does anyone actually believe that the chocolate river is actually made of chocolate? Nonetheless, the film’s charm has never wavered. From the bizarre Oompa-Loompa songs to Gene Wilder’s brilliant and infectious performance, everything about this film is whimsical fantasy but always with a touch of bittersweet reality waiting just around the corner.
8. Mary Poppins (1964)
My grandmother and I used to joke that if there was someone out there who actively disliked Mary Poppins, then we didn’t want to meet them. Except I’m not always sure that we were joking.
Some people may not actually know this, but Mary Poppins is based on a series of books by P.L. Travers. A series of books that I have actually read. And I can assure you, there is a reason that you’ve probably seen this movie at least once and yet quite possibly have never heard of those books. Disney managed to take a story with an interesting premise yet a fundamentally unlikeable and stand-offish protagonist and turn it into a genuine classic.
Much of that credit has to be owed to Julie Andrews, who transforms the cold and vain Mary from the books into a strict yet lovable icon of cinema. And as bad as his accent may be, Dick Van Dyke’s chemistry with Andrews is still palpable. Everything about this movie works; its story, its characters, its music and much more. Yet as lively and upbeat as the whole affair is, Mary Poppins also manages to be one of those childhood classics that can still entertain adults. It may be about a flying nanny who uses magic to change the lives of two little children, but it is also filled with moments of quiet and potent atmosphere. It blends both the happy and the sad perfectly with humor, pathos, and half a dozen songs that you’ll be humming long after the film is over.
7. La Belle et la Bête (1946)
While Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) might just be their best animated film, it is certainly rivaled by Jean Cocteau’s much older and much more adult take on the classic fairy tale. And with the upcoming release of the Emma Watson-driven live-action remake, it seems only fitting to reminisce about arguably the best adaptation of the original story.
Not only is Cocteau’s interpretation of the classic fairy tale beautifully filmed, but it manages to fully immerse itself in the little world it creates. Every frame feels like it’s part of a bedtime story come to life. This quality becomes all the more unsettling when you begin to notice the many sexual undertones and Freudian themes embedded in Cocteau’s screenplay. Which is not to say that kids won’t be able to find any enjoyment in this film. Honestly, most of the subtext will probably fly right over their heads. The film may begin with Cocteau imploring us to remember what it was once like to be an innocent child, but this is really a cinematic experience for those children all grown up who only now realize what those fairy tales they loved when they were younger were really all about.
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
If I wanted people to burn me at the stake, I would have excluded The Lord of the Rings from this list. Thankfully, I have better sense than that, though I seriously debated how to tackle this particular franchise. The Lord of the Rings was never really my thing. While I enjoyed the books as a child, I was always more interested in Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. I was entertained by the movies when I first saw them, but I always preferred…well…just about everything else on this list. That being said, few film franchises (or even individual films) have had such an impact on modern cinema and it would feel wrong not to honor Peter Jackson’s mammoth accomplishment. After all, even if I don’t have quite the same emotional connection with them as some people do, I can acknowledge that they are well acted, well directed and about as impressive an adaptation as you could make out of Tolkien’s masterpiece.
Honestly, any of the three films could have been selected for this list and some fans will probably argue that I should just include all three because it really is just one big story. But I’ve decided to include my favorite, The Two Towers. It was my favorite of the books so it makes sense that it was my favorite movie. With the most impressive fantasy battle ever filmed and the introduction of one of cinema’s greatest characters, Gollum, there’s a lot to love in The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings as a whole.
5. The Princess Bride (1987)
The Princess Bride is a lot like Labyrinth…but better. It walks that same tight-rope between feeling like a product of the ‘80s while simultaneously being a timeless classic. The story is universal, the characters iconic and the humor infectious. And, of course, who could ever forget, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” In high school, my English teacher made us write a line in cursive over and over again in preparation for the SATs just to make sure we remembered what we were doing. We all complained until she decided the line we should write would be “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…” No one complained after that.
As endearing as the fantasy story in The Princess Bride is, what has always made it stand above other, similar films is the frame story. Frame stories are often just a lazy way to pad out your film or an excuse to include narration. Not so in this film. The conceit of a grandfather telling the story of The Princess Bride to his sick grandson adds a surprising layer of depth to the story. Fantasy has its origins in fables, folk tales and fairy tales which were all originally passed down orally. So the frame story recalls that tradition and allows us to become the grandson for a little while–skeptical at first but eventually in love with this quirky tale of revenge and romance. And, like the grandson, we too are disappointed when the story has to inevitably come to an end.
4. Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki isn’t just the master of Japanese animation, but of animation in general. His films are magical in a way that is almost impossible to describe. They move at their own pace, concerned more with atmosphere and character than with any sort of a story. Spirited Away, for example, is ostensibly about a 10-year-old girl who must find a way to save her parents, who have been transformed into pigs, from an evil witch who runs a bathhouse in a spirit world. But most of the time Miyazaki and his animators seem relatively unconcerned with the burdens of the plot they’ve contrived. In the hands of a different filmmaker, that almost ambivalent approach to storytelling might feel frustrating, but Miyazaki is clearly such a pro that we tend to accept whatever comes our way. And what comes our way in this film is truly spectacular.
Spirited Away is a visual treat for your eyes. Half the time the designs don’t even appear to have a basis in established mythology, instead relying on the pure creativity of incredibly talented animators. The result is weird, sometimes disturbing, sometimes ludicrous, sometimes whimsical and always entertaining. Combine that with a group of characters who are never shades as “good” or “bad” but instead as a little bit of both, and you have quite possibly Miyazaki’s finest work.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
If we have to blame something for the endless influx of young-adult movie adaptations dominating theater screens everywhere, then it would have to be J.K. Rowling’s “take-the-world-by-storm” success story, Harry Potter. For over a decade, the story of the Boy Who Lived was on the mind of every member of any household that had children or teenagers. That being said, Harry Potter is probably no longer “cool” or “hip” and I am probably no longer “with it” to be extolling its many virtues at such a late date. No matter, because this list would be veritably naked without a Potter film to grace it. And how could my selection be anything other than the series’ masterpiece, Prisoner of Azkaban.
All of the Potter films are in their own right enjoyable, providing rabid fans with reasonably good adaptations of their favorite stories. But none can compete with Alfonso Cuaron’s single outing in Rowling’s magical world of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If Christopher Columbus’s interpretation in the first two films was occasionally a little bit too cutesy and bland, Cuaron’s was the exact opposite. He redesigned the world, imbuing it with an air of magic and mystery that made the whole thing feel real. Hogwarts no longer felt like a movie set; it felt like a living breathing environment, an ancient castle housing hormonal teenagers learning about mystical spells and magical creatures.
But the true genius of Azkaban is the way it allows the main characters to grow and mature beyond adorable children and into temperamental, angst filled teenagers faced with uncertain destinies and perpetual concerns about self-worth. Azkaban was really the first film where Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson fully grew into their roles, perfectly embodying the lovable yet immensely fallible natures of their book counterparts. In particular, this film takes time to explore Harry’s growing sense of isolation in a world that unreasonably expects great things from him.
The story also gives Cuaron the opportunity to pull out some cinematic magic of his own; his direction results in some of the franchises’ most memorable scenes, including a flight on a hippogriff, the introduction of the dementors, and my favorite scene in any Potter film: the Time Turner sequence. If this list were purely a reflection of my personal preferences, this film would probably be ranked even higher, but as is, I think number 3 is pretty impressive.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Because some days you just need to follow the yellow brick road.
I’m pretty sure there is a mandate for every household that has children that says they must own a copy of The Wizard of Oz. If such a mandate doesn’t exist, then it should.
Behind the scenes, The Wizard of Oz was a mess. A minimum of six directors and close to two-dozen screenwriters worked on the exceedingly difficult adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel. By all accounts, the film should have been a catastrophe, yet somehow it wasn’t. The dialogue, the performances, the designs, the musical numbers, they have all become iconic in their own right. And rightfully so. The Wizard of Oz is one of the few movies from its era that probably won’t have kids complaining about how everything looks so dated and unrealistic. And I think that’s largely because the film so thoroughly sucks you into its world you just don’t care when things don’t entirely make sense. We all know that the Cowardly Lion looks nothing like a real lion, just as we can tell that the Flying Monkeys are men in costumes. But as I child I never once cared about that and to this day I still don’t. In fact, I don’t even notice it. Why? Because that’s not what I’m focused on. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen this movie; I still worry for Dorothy when she’s trapped by the Wicked Witch of the West. I want her to get home safely. I want the Scarecrow to get his brains, the Tinman to get his heart and the Cowardly Lion to get his courage. Don’t we all.
For some of the films on this list I have to speculate about whether or not they will be perceived as “classics” in the years to come. I naturally assume they will be, but I can never be sure. But when it comes to The Wizard of Oz, I don’t have to speculate because in two years it will be celebrating its 80th anniversary. And on that day I suspect we will all greet it like we would an old friend from our childhood.
Because some days there’s just no place like home.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
I feel as though there is something a little twisted about the fact that my choice for the best fantasy film ever made is also the only film on this list which children explicitly should not watch. It is for adults and adults only. However, I’m not going to lie and pretend that Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t the most magical film I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to lie and pretend that I don’t think it’s a masterpiece. I’m not going to lie and pretend that I don’t think it should have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2006.
Pan’s Labyrinth is both a dark fantasy about the quest of a young girl who happens to be the reincarnation of the lost Princess of the Underworld, as well as a brutal and often tragic war story set in Spain of 1944. Throughout most of the run time these two narratives are interwoven and both in their own ways are terrifying, disturbing and yet often hopeful as well. The striking contrast between these two parallel stories is held together by one of the best performances from a child actor in the form of Ivana Baquero as the tenacious and impressionable reincarnated princess, Ofelia.
Guillermo del Toro has always been a talented visual director, but this film is undoubtedly his masterpiece, filled with a host of unforgettable creatures such as the morally ambiguous Faun, the filthy giant Toad, the adorable Mandrake Root and the nightmare-inducing Pale Man. The mixture of fear and wonder produced by each creature is matched by similar emotions during the war sequences where we see a conflict between Fascists and rebels that is both incredibly specific and completely universal.
Pan’s Labyrinth draws a great deal from fairy tales, yet it also inverts them. Most fairy tales end with a life lesson encouraging obedience and good behavior in children. Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, features a protagonist who is habitually disobedient, defying the edicts of cruel and miserable adults for the sake of finding her fantasy kingdom. I won’t spoil the ending but, suffice it to say, it makes one wonder about the cost of that disobedience. When is that disobedience warranted, and when is it better to simply do what others tell you to? A more conventional film lover might have selected either The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings for the top spot on this list, but in good conscience I could never do that without denying the power and quality of one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
Sebastian is a first year from Coupeville, WA. He intends to major in film studies and minor in psychology. He is currently a film critic for The Dartmouth.