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17 Best Fantasy Movies of All Time
To this day, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and The Shape of Water remain the only fantasy films to win Best Picture at the Oscars (some might even debate the latter as a fantasy film, but we’ll include it here for its fairy tale elements). And before Return of the King in 2003, it was unheard of for any genre film to appear in the major categories at the Academy Awards. Even in 1940, the Wizard of Oz was only nominated for Best Picture—losing to Gone With the Wind. But more recently, genre films are getting the credit they deserve, as the Academy has expanded the scope of its Best Picture category.
In a post-Game of Thrones world, we know there’s definitely an appetite for the fantasy genre. And studios are eager to find what could be the next major fantasy franchise. We’re on the precipice of a bold new era for fantasy. So, it’s a great time to look back at what the best of the genre has to offer.
Here, we run down the best fantasy movies of all time. These are the films that have captured imaginations for generations, films that will transport you to Oz, or Middle-Earth, or the wizarding world. Populated by elves, and dwarves, and wizards, and hobits, and David Bowie—these are the fantasy lands that only movie magic can create.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
It is The Wizard of Oz for a modern generation. Peter Jackson’s masterful trilogy (and if you wanna go deep, there’s the overstuffed Hobbit films, too) is the greatest fantasy series of all time. With beautiful, transportative scenery; intricate sets and costumes; vast battle scenes; a brilliant score; and phenomenal acting—he fully creates Middle Earth on the screen. J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved series is as real as it ever could be in these once-in-a-lifetime films. – Matt Miller
The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz has all the bells and whistles of the genre—munchkins, witches, and genuinely terrifying flying monkeys. The 1939 musical classic follows Dorothy on her tornado-induced adventure to the magical land of Oz. While she heads down the Yellow Brick Road on her way to the Wizard, whom she hopes will help her get back home, she makes friends with the Cowardly Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow, who all have asks of their own for the wizard. While it’s no doubt a trip to a fantasy land, it’ll leave you certain that there’s no place like home. -Lauren Kranc
Guillermo del Toro’s inspired 2006 film is one that sometimes flies under the radar, but one watch of the dark fantasy film and you’ll know why it’s a cult classic. Set in 1944 Nazi-occupied Spain, the main story centers on Ofelia, a young girl whose own adventure into the fantastical elements of a labyrinth eventually shed light on the devastating effects of war and evil men. -Justin Kirkland
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
In your mind’s eye, when you think of the rabbit-hole-traveler, the shrinking, the growing, Alice, the Mad Hatter and All—what do you see? Even though it’s a tad underrated, probably not Tim Burton’s gothic take on Alice in Wonderland. It’s more likely that the 1951 Disney animated film is the one you see. And for good reason: The Mouse House nailed the wonder, innocence, and adventurous spirit of Lewis Carroll’s classic. – Brady Langmann
The Shape of Water
Another del Toro offering, the 2017 Best Picture winner brings us back Stateside and introduces us to a mute woman who falls in love with a fish-like monster who was captured in South America and transported back to the States. It has the signature mid-century flair of del Toro’s previous work and all the oddities to keep you intrigued. Warning: please keep an eye on your hard boiled eggs. -JK
It may not have all the bells and whistles that your more stereotypical fantasy films have, but make no mistake, Mary Poppins is prime fantasy. Combining the elements of animation and live action choreography, the Disney classic transcends the genre’s parameters and sets a standard for fantasy that is as exciting as it is family friendly. – JK
Though J.K. Rowling has firmly destroyed her own legacy, legions of fans will not let her present-day bigotry ruin the magic of the Harry Potter series. After the books captured a generation, this film series managed to visualize the vast wizarding world. The magic is there on the screen just as millions of fans imagined it. The casting is spot on, and the films grow in complexity and scope as the characters and the source material does.- MM
The Princess Bride
The 1987 American film is an intelligent, comedic fairy tale adventure. Celebrating and subverting the genre at once, it follows Westley on his quest to reunite with his one true love, Buttercup, and battle the evils of the kingdom of Florin along the way. It also features perhaps the most iconic Mandy Patinkin line delivery of all time, if you still needed convincing.- LK
This beloved animated fantasy film from Studio Ghibli comes from the master writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. The Oscar-winning film follows a young girl whose family is transported to the world of Kami from Japanese Shinto folklore. When her parents are turned into pigs, she sets out to save her parents and herself so they can return to their own realm. With beautiful visuals, compassionately realized characters, and themes that tackle real world adult issues—Spirited Away is one of the best films of this century. – MM
The Chronicles of Narnia
The film series, based on the novels by C.S. Lewis, follows the adventures of four siblings who are sent to a hideaway home during WWII and discover a magical wardrobe in it that leads to the land of Narnia. It’s a mystical land where they befriend creatures and talking animals and join in on the battle to free Narnia from an evil witch’s rule. – LK
In this vivid stop-motion fantasy, adapted from a Neil Gaiman novel, an imaginative child named Coraline discovers a parallel world behind a secret door in her new family home. Little does Coraline know, the world holds dark secrets, which threaten to endanger the lives of everyone she loves. Come for the madcap fantasy, but stay for the tender coming of age story, wherein one courageous girl discovers the true meaning of home. – Adrienne Westenfeld
Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s heartfelt adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s seminal children’s book centers on Max, a lonely boy who sails away to the island of the “Wild Things,” who crown him their king. In this spirited story about the joy and wonder of our inner child, Jonze’s signature visual style carries the day, shaping a visually spectacular world of shaggy creatures and spectacular landscapes. – AW
By far Tim Burton’s best movie (yeah, we said it), based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a Southern Gothic fantasy starring Ewan McGregor as a man frustrated by his dying father’s tall tales. On his deathbed (or rather, in his death bathtub), the father looks back on his extraordinary life, which brought him face to face with everything from giants to witches. In a tear-jerking story about fathers and sons, Burton explores the meaning of truth, the fantastical, and the stories we tell in order to live. – AW
Okay, Labyrinth is legitimately terrifying, but where else are you going to get a David Bowie musical directed by Jim Henson? Nowhere! When Bowie’s evil goblin king kidnaps an infant boy, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) sets out on a quest to save her brother. She must travel through a fantastical maze populated by some trippy Henson puppets to get him back. -MM
Has there ever been another animated series that lived on in meme form quite like Shrek? From Smash Mouth to Donkey, an entire generation refused to let this 2001 Dreamworks picture fade away. And though we may remember it best from the memes today, Shrek is a truly hilarious fantasy comedy and a touching story about loneliness and friendship. – MM
It must’ve been a swerve at the time: Take this goofy, squeaky, children’s character, and make him the star of a meditative, music-filled tone poem. Fantasia is full of wonder, dazzling animation, and still holds its place as one of Disney’s most innovative films. Who knew that Mickey Mouse could star in something dark enough to give a kid nightmares? – BL
Pixar has long studied the childlike parts of our brains—the joy, anger, sadness of your single-digit years. In Inside Out, Pixar made a whole damn film about a child’s brain, personifying the emotions of 11-year-old Riley as she’s coming of age. The world of the Memory Dump somehow ends up being one of the best fantasy worlds Pixar’s ever realized on screen. – BL
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