Fantasy movies provide a true escape from reality, bringing viewers to faraway lands with magical powers, creatures, and beings. The farthest depths of imagination are brought to the surface in the different stories that fall under the category of fantasy. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary!
The best fantasy movies ever made are those that often inspire massive franchises, introduce novel aspects to the oversaturated genre, or are impactful and memorable enough to stay with audiences for years. These are also the ideal movies for viewers looking for the must-see fantasy films, as they defined and continue to change the enduring genre.
20 ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982)
The opus known as The Dark Crystal is a fantastical tale chronicling the journey of Jen (Stephen Garlick), the one surviving member of a Gelfling tribe. His grueling quest is to acquire a sliver of the titular crystal, a powerful jewel that, upon breaking, plunged the world into darkness. Jen’s mission has one main goal – to reassemble the crystal – while also stopping the ruinous Skeksis, and restoring balance to the cosmos.
The influence of The Dark Crystal on the fantasy genre is beyond measure. It was a groundbreaking showcase of the latest in puppetry, animatronics, and practical effects, which all seamlessly combine to create a wondrous world of magical creatures and stunning landscapes. It marked an important point in the genre in the 80s and was a hot topic of discussion well into the 90s. Its influence is still felt in the craftsmanship behind fantasy films today.
19 ‘The Green Mile’ (1999)
In director Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile, viewers are taken on a heart-wrenching journey on death row at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the Great Depression. Based on the eponymous novel by Stephen King, the renowned three-hour-long movie depicts the fantastical events following the arrival of the death row inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who is a gentle giant with supernatural abilities. He forms a bond with one of the guards, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), whose life is forever changed by their brief friendship.
With a tour-de-force performance from Hanks and Duncan and a deeply emotional story, The Green Mile is a fantasy film that’s impossible to forget. It has surprisingly strong commentary on the flaws of the judicial system, prejudice, and abuse of power. Plus, it’s hard not to shed a tear at its heartbreaking conclusion.
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18 ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)
A Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece that appeals to audiences’ inner child, My Neighbor Totoro tells a touching tale of innocence and beauty (with a dash of magic). It revolves around the bond between two sisters, who make a new adorable friend, Totoro, who introduces them to all kinds of fun adventures and other magical wood spirits in their new home.
With gorgeous animation to complement its heartwarming story, My Neighbor Totoro has something to offer viewers of all ages. It reminds fans to embrace the possibilities and expand their imaginations, and has an infectious sense of wonder that audiences will carry with them long after the credits roll.
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17 ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984)
From director Wolfgang Petersen (in his first English-language movie) and based on Michael Ende’s 1979 novel, the 1984 adaptation, The NeverEnding Story, is a timeless classic that chronicles Bastian’s (Barret Oliver) adventures in Fantasia. The young warrior has the crucial task of stopping the dark force known as the Nothing, which threatens the magical realm and everything in it.
With stunning practical effects and realistic puppetry, The NeverEnding Story is a live-action fairytale movie remembered for its immersive world and all the beloved characters (like the Luckdragon and Atreyu) that come with it. Bastian’s journey is nothing short of exhilarating and inspiring, and is one that has touched the hearts of millions across the globe and spans different generations.
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16 ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989)
Based on W. P. Kinsella‘s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, Field of Dreams is a widely acclaimed sports fantasy film that tells the story of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner). Ray is a farmer who decides to construct a baseball field in his cornfield, which is then visited by the ghosts of baseball legends like Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
A stirring masterpiece that highlights the power of love, second chances, and human connection, Field of Dreams is a defining movie that stirred an entire generation. Ray’s story is just as relevant today as ever before, and his experiences are forever etched in fans’ minds (especially his tear-jerking final game with his father).
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15 ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)
An award-winning Tim Burton movie about an artificial humanoid with scissors for hands, Edward Scissorhands tells the tale of the titular protagonist (played by Johnny Depp), who lives in isolation for years following the sudden death of his lonely creator (played by Vincent Price). When he’s discovered by the kind Peg (Dianne Wiest), he moves to the suburbs and soon forms a connection with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder).
Melancholic, romantic, and enchanting all at once, Edward Scissorhands – at its core – is a story about acceptance and an ode to those who are ostracized for being different. Its imaginative set pieces and distinct visual style perfectly complement its wholly original story, which manages to leave an inspiring message about embracing individuality (which still resonates with fans today).
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14 ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017)
Guillermo del Toro‘s visionary storytelling transports viewers to a dark fantasy setting where a custodian, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), in a high-security laboratory unexpectedly falls in love with an amphibian man (played by Doug Jones) being confined there. Together, they try to escape before Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) sanctions riskier experiments that could lead to the man’s death.
Full to the brim of del Toro’s recognizable trademarks, the fantasy film highlights both the beautiful and flawed parts of love and humanity. Its heart-wrenching story (that comes with a haunting score) is a love letter to the way true romance can transcend boundaries, no matter the cost.
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13 ‘King Kong’ (1933)
King Kong is a 1933 adventure film that holds the distinction of being the first movie in the franchise. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the cinematic masterpiece tells the classic story of the monstrous Kong who becomes obsessed with the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).
Aside from putting the now-iconic story to the big screen, the film is remembered for slick editing and surprisingly convincing (at that time) effects, which made its scariest sequences effective. It has had a lasting impact not just on the fantasy genre, but on the monster and horror genres, too. It’s worth noting that some aspects of the movie haven’t aged well, as it has been criticized for racist and sexist themes.
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12 ‘La Belle et La Bête’ (1946)
A stunning work of art and a classic of French cinema, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is a romantic fantasy film that tells a “tale as old as time” of Belle (Josette Day), a young woman who ends up in a magical castle with the complicated character known as the Beast (Jean Marais). Belle originally only stays to save her father’s life, but soon learns more about the Beast and the magic surrounding the castle.
La Belle et la Bête has gone down in cinematic history as one of the greatest fairytale adaptations ever made. Its timeless message about compassion and unconditional love is one that still influences more modern takes on the story (and fairytale movies in general). It’s not too far-fetched to say that it was a significant contributor to the blueprint that makes up similar fantasy romance films today.
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11 ‘Pinocchio’ (1940)
Arguably still the best adaptation of Pinocchio today, 1940’s Pinocchio is a beloved Disney classic and its second-ever animated film (following 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). It tells the legendary tale that has captured the hearts of countless viewers, who will forever remember the story of Geppetto’s wooden puppet, who wants nothing more than to become a real boy.
The film’s cutting-edge animation, colorful backgrounds, and memorable characters turned it into a triumph when it first premiered. The magic it brought to the big screen is one that several subsequent adaptations still try (and mostly fail) to recreate in modern cinema.
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10 ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is a renowned Christmas classic directed by Frank Capra that follows the story of George Bailey (James Stewart), a kind-hearted man who struggles with thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve. In his darkest moment, an angel – Clarence (Henry Travers) – appears before him. Clarence shows George what life would have been like if he had never been born. Through this hard-hitting tour, George realizes the value of his own life.
It’s hard (almost impossible) not to feel or even relate to George’s pain, frustration, and despair, and even harder not to cheer with him when he finally realizes the impact he has had on the lives of those around him. Through Stewart’s iconic character’s profound journey of self-discovery, audiences are reminded of the importance of community, of the impact one life can have on others, and of the love and support that everyone needs in their lives.
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9 ‘Spirited Away’ (2001)
Spirited Away is a Studio Ghibli movie that has amassed a sort of cult following in recent years. The film follows a young 10-year-old girl who recently moved to the suburbs. She accidentally stumbles into the world of Kami (spirits of Japanese Shinto folklore).
Her parents are turned into pigs, a witch named Yubaba is around, and more occur in Spirited Away. The film is well-loved and is a great way to learn about Japanese culture and folklore. Additionally, the art style that Studio Ghibli produces is absolutely stunning and always worth watching.
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8 ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-Mexican dark fantasy film that was directed, written, and co-produced by Guillermo del Toro. The story takes place during the Spanish Civil War in Spain and focuses on a young girl named Ofelia. Ofelia, the daughter of a terrible army officer, escapes into a labyrinth and creepy fantasy world.
She meets a friendly Faun and many terrifying creatures along the way. This film is a very unique watch because of its tonal qualities that separate Pan’s Labyrinth from other films. Anyone looking to watch something truly different in terms of fantasy should consider Pan’s Labyrinth.
7 ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ (1971)
A film that takes viewers (young and old) on a magical and unpredictable ride, director Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a critically-acclaimed classic fantasy film that’s undoubtedly the best adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s 1964 novel. It’s centered on the story of a poor child, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), who finds a Golden Ticket in a chocolate bar that buys him the price of entrance to Willy Wonka’s (Gene Wilder) chocolate factory.
With the remarkably quirky and wacky candy man leading the winners, the film holds viewers by the hand and encourages them to think back to the wonders of childhood (and why those feelings still matter when they’re older). The film’s brilliant use of music, humor, and special effects creates a dazzling magical world that likely still holds a place in audiences’ hearts.
6 ‘The Princess Bride’ (1987)
The Princess Bride is a fantasy adventure comedy that is highly regarded as a classic fantasy movie. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by William Goldman and follows a farmhand named Westley who, accompanied by companions befriended along his journey, must rescue his true love (who happens to be a Princess) from the clutches of an evil Prince.
Fans still call The Princess Bride a perfect movie. This film has helped some of the most legendary pop culture moments come to fruition, like the iconic “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father; prepare to die!” line.
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5 The ‘Harry Potter’ Film Series (2001 – 2011)
There is no fantasy film series that does witchcraft and wizardry better than the Harry Potter franchise. The fan-favorite and worldwide sensation that is Harry Potter revolves around a young boy named Harry who discovers he is a wizard (and the only one who can vanquish the evil Lord Voldemort) and is whisked away to a magical sort of boarding school where he encounters a series of challenges, from dark villains to potions class.
Harry Potter is one of the best fantasy film series of all time. The franchise has taken over the world so much so even a Broadway musical has been created based on the series. Everyone should try watching this truly magical series.
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4 ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937)
As Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs paved the way for the beloved animated Disney classics fans know and love. It was a groundbreaking achievement in animation, and cemented Disney as a leader in that space then, with the company being credited for revolutionizing that industry.
With unforgettable characters, stunning visuals, and an enchanting story, the Disney film set the standard for animation quality (combined with great storytelling) and is one that holds up incredibly well. Not to mention the film’s music, which introduced nostalgic songs like “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Heigh-Ho” – some viewers likely still remember the words to these titles. Watching it again today makes it easy to see why it’s an iconic part of cinematic history, and why its legacy will likely live on and inspire countless fans in the future.
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3 ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Trilogy (2001 – 2003)
The Lord of the Rings is by far one of the most popular fantasy series and has become a global phenomenon and staple for what fantasy could be. The series is a saga of a group of heroes that band together to save the world from a rising evil. A young Hobbit named Frodo inherits the Ring (an all-powerful object that controls the future of existence) and must destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom before enemy hands take it first.
The Lord of the Rings is rich with history, lore, and high fantasy. The series is perfect for fans of Dungeons and Dragons or fantasy with lots of world-building elements and escapist themes.
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2 The ‘Star Wars’ Saga (1977 – )
A cultural touchstone that has dominated pop culture and is beloved by countless fans from different generations, the Star Wars saga has an irreplaceable place in cinematic history. The franchise has captivated hearts and minds through its incredible storylines and legendary characters (Luke Skywalker, Yoda, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader, to name a few).
Although most consider the saga to be solely a sci-fi masterpiece rather than a fantasy series, George Lucas himself has insisted in an interview that “Star Wars is not science fiction at all.” Another article expounds on Lucas’ statement, saying “Star Wars is a fantasy film and a space opera, not a science-fiction film.” Who says the two genres can’t share? Either way, what both fans and critics know is that the global franchise’s ability to attract new fans means its fantastic world-building and storylines set in a galaxy far, far away, are far, far from over.
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1 ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)
Without a doubt, director Victor Fleming‘s The Wizard of Oz is a cinematic masterpiece and among the most magical movies that highlight the very best of the enduring art form. The genre-defining classic stars the incomparable Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, who is transported to the enchanting (and dangerous) world of Oz. While she initially wants nothing more than to return home to Kansas, she soon makes some selfless friends like the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.
An absolute tour de force, the film became an instant classic that took the world by storm. It wasn’t the first to use Technicolor, but it’s the movie that brought it into the mainstream, and rightly so. The painstaking work that went on behind the scenes to make it as visually stunning and convincing as possible paid off, as Dorothy’s unforgettable journey down the Yellow Brick Road is one that fans still enjoy today.
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Updated on March 24, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
With recent award-winning adaptations of classic tales like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and upcoming attempts like Wonka (December 15, 2023), it’s easy to see that the best fantasy movies ever made tend to have an enduring influence on cinema. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of the very best from the genre that fans should consider essential viewing.
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