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My Favorite Fantasy Movies

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

conan-the-barbarian-poster2-smallI love a good fantasy movie, and love to goof on bad ones, too. Fantasy is a genre that didn’t always translate well to the big screen, until the recent advances in CGI technology allowed studios to capture creatures such as dragons and Balrogs in all their glory.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Classic Schwarzenegger. Although this adaptation departs from the style (and story) of Robert E. Howard’s books, it retains the grit and raw muscular power of Conan in a way that the newer incarnation (sorry, Jason Momoa) couldn’t begin to match.

James Earl Jones was a masterstroke of casting as the villainous wizard Thulsa Doom. This film contains some unforgettable scenes: Conan growing up pushing that big mill wheel, the witch who had sex with Conan and then tried to kill him, breaking into the Temple of Set, the Tree of Woe, and of course the awesomely bloody climax where Conan cuts his way through legions of fanatics to eventually take the head of his enemy.

Conan, you taught us the riddle of steel, and for that we thank you.

[Click on any image in this article for a bigger version.]

The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit (2001-current)

I’ve lumped all these movies — the LoTR trilogy and the subsequent Hobbit films — together because, to me, they represent one massive, wonderful opus.

As a long-time fan of the books by J.R.R. Tolkien, I’ve waited my entire life for a suitable adaptation, and Peter Jackson delivered in spades. The Mines of Moria sequences, culminating with the arrival of the Balrog demon, is one of my all-time favorite movie moments. The cast is wonderful. The sets are jaw-dropping. The story, of course, is first-rate.

One of the things on my bucket-list is to watch the extended versions of all the Hobbit movies followed by all the LoTR movies in a single sitting. Fantasy heaven.

Star Wars movie poster-smallStar Wars, original trilogy (1977-1984)

Wait a minute. Isn’t Star Wars science fiction?

Well, let’s examine it. We have a young (Jedi) knight tutored by an old wizard to follow his destiny and challenge the rule of an evil emperor. Sounds like classic fantasy to me.

Star Wars (the original trilogy) is my favorite movie series ever. Partly because I was at an impressionable age in 1977 when the first movie hit the theaters. And partly because it just kicks ass.

The Empire Strikes Back is the best sequel of all time. And, yes, there are some parts of Return of the Jedi that make me cringe a little (Ewoks, egads!), but it’s still a worthy cap to a great, great series. Luke, Han, Leia, and Darth Vader will live on in our culture for centuries, I’m sure. Alas, don’t get me started on the horrible nightmare that is the prequel series….

Harry Potter series (2001-2011)

I never really got into the books (probably because they are written for children and I was an adult when I first picked them up), but my wife dragged me to each movie when they came out, and I have to admit they are pretty fantastic.

First, because it’s rare that we get to watch a group of young actors literally grow up before our eyes over the course of a movie series. Compare Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows, and you realize how far these characters (and actors) have come. It’s quite amazing.

Couple that with amazing sets, intelligent humor, and good old-fashioned fun, and you have something quite spectacular.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon poster-smallCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Director Ang Lee combines beautiful locations with a killer story, and just enough mysticism to qualify this movie as a fantasy.

This tale of betrayal, love, and the Green Destiny sword rises above the crowd of martial arts flicks. It is true art. The cast is sublime with Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh as world-weary mystic warriors.

Beautiful and poignant from beginning to end.

Highlander (1986)

This is one of those movies I can watch again and again.

The storyline of Connor MacLeod in “modern” America contrasts magnificently with his origin tale set in 16th-century Scotland. The unfolding centuries-old conflict between MacLeod and his nemesis, the Kurgan, is like watching poetry.

Yes, there are some plot questions that aren’t answered with much satisfaction. (If the Immortals are all jockeying to be the last man standing, why does Ramirez tutor young MacLeod?) And yes, the sequel movie was really terrible, but none of those things can take away from the fact that this is a wonderful story.

Clash of the Titans 1981 poster-smallClash of the Titans (1981)

Not to be confused with the crappy remake, this swords & sandals epic is a true classic. I know some of the special effects are dated, but the heart of this movie is a powerful tale in the spirit of Greek mythology.

Despite the gobs of fighting and monsters, there is an elegance to this movie that never tarnishes. Hell, it’s got Sir Lawrence f-ing Olivier!

Though the ending is a bit Hollywood stock (the hero kills the monster, saves the day, and wins the girl), the journey itself is fantastic. Release the Kraken!


There are also some fantasy movies that I enjoy as guilty pleasures. I don’t claim any of them are masterpieces of the film world, but they are great fun. So, I give you my Honorable Mentions.

Beastmaster (1982)

This movie is a little hokey, but it came out in the same year as Conan the Barbarian and built on some of the same tropes.

A young man’s village is destroyed by a horde of roving barbarians under the control of an evil priest-wizard. So he gathers his animal friends and a hot temple acolyte (Tanya Roberts, looking quite fetching) to get revenge.

Not exactly Shakespeare, but this movie has enough fantasy elements and themes to deserve a mention. Marc Singer is pretty buff, and Rip Torn (I know, right?) is spooky enough to keep our attention.

Dragonslayer Poster-smallDragonslayer (1981)

This is one of the first fantasy movies I saw in a theater. There’s a huge dragon plaguing the kingdom, so a young wizard’s apprentice answers the call to fight it. The king doesn’t have much faith in him, but the apprentice forges a big honking spear with steel and sorcery to challenge the beast anyway.

I love this movie because of its restraint. There is magic, but it’s more subtle than most fantasy tales. The dragon is kept mostly under wraps as a menacing presence until the end, which gives an incredible background tension throughout most of the movie.

And it’s a story of true heroism, where a mostly-ordinary person attempts — with his wits and courage — to do something great.

Ladyhawke (1985)

Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and Michelle Pfeiffer star in this story of true love. The main story, of a knight who turns into a wolf at night and his lady-love who is a bird during the day, is touching, but would have been a little stale if not for the presence of Broderick’s trickster-thief/comic-relief, Phillipe Gaston.

The tale of thwarted lovers and religious excess is a nice backdrop while we watch Gaston grow from a self-centered, wise-cracking punk into a man of courage. Unfortunately, the movie’s corny soundtrack blemishes some of the scenes. But if you can get through that, this is a movie worth seeing.

Krull movie poster-smallKrull (1983)

This mash-up of fantasy and science fiction is both corny and trite, as a prince struggles to free his betrothed from the fortress-spaceship of a galaxy-conquering alien called The Beast.

Some of the sets are flimsy. The acting is only adequate. However, the film does a decent job of following the classic “hero’s journey,” with tips of the hat to Star Wars, King Arthur, and other sources.

More importantly, there’s a lot of imagination evident in this movie, from the Cyclops with the gift of foresight and the Widow of the Web. And, of course, we end with a note of love conquering all. Plus, you’ll get to see Liam Neeson as an axe-wielding bandit.

I hope you enjoyed this romp through my favorite fantasy movies. I’m sure I missed a few good ones. Please add your list of favorites in the comments.

15 Comments »

  1. Glad to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon mentioned — it’s probably the best of a surprising number of really good Chinese fantasy movies out there. A few other favorites: Storm Riders, Bride with White Hair, Chinese Ghost Story and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 2, 2013 8:58 am

  2. I’ve got a soft spot for Krull, too, mostly because of the wonderful monsters. The Beast and his slayers are great bad guys and I love that you never really get a good look at the Beast, except maybe for his face.

    Dragonslayer had the best dragon in movie history. I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, but they’re going to have to work to beat Vermithrax Pejorative.

    I like Clash of the Titans but prefer Jason and the Argonauts and the first two Sinbad movies of Harryhausen’s stuff.

    Oh, and I figure Ramirez was training McLeod because he wanted to make sure that even if he couldn’t win the prize, there’d be at least one more well-trained good guy to oppose the Kurgan.

    Comment by andy - October 2, 2013 11:12 am

  3. Yes to CTHD, as well as some of the other high quality Hong Kong martial arts movies, and even some of the low quality ones. Chinese Ghost Story is fantastic, and CSG2 also delights, although the last 15 minutes or so are pretty weak. (CSG2 is a must-watch just for the scene where the Hold Monster spell goes wrong.)

    Ladyhawke and Big Trouble in Little China have long been at the top of my list, although I’m willing to make room for the LOTR trilogy. (Verdict is still out on The Hobbit, but so far so good.)

    The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is by far my favorite Harryhausen movie.

    I’ve often said Conan the Barbarian, which I like, could have been a fantastic movie if Arnold had the acting chops then that he had today (not great, but vastly improved). Here’s hoping The Legend of Conan has as good a script and vision as the original so we get a chance to find out.

    Star Wars helped get us from the SF movie desert of my youth to the cornucopia of today, for which I will be eternally grateful. Now it needs to stop pretended it’s anything other than a bad movie.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - October 2, 2013 11:34 am

  4. Add in Excalibur and Legend, and the list is perfect. :)

    Comment by TDoolan - October 2, 2013 11:39 am

  5. I also have a soft spot for Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, although I suspect they’d fall below the orange line in your two categories.

    As far as Harryhausen, I think Golden Voyage of Sinbad was the best all-around movie but Clash had his best work.

    I’d also throw Thief of Bagdad (the 1940s version) into the mix.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 2, 2013 11:58 am

  6. Chalk me up for another who favours Jason and the Argonauts, the Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the Thief of Bagdad.

    Save for the Balrog in LotR, I have yet to see any CGI monster that could beat Harryhausen’s stop motion creations for character and magic.

    Comment by RuneQuest - October 2, 2013 12:43 pm

  7. I’ve got one for you to add if you’ve not seen it. It might be a SyFy original (not sure), and plays on there about once a quarter at least, but don’t let that fool you.

    The name of the movie is Outlander, and although it’s really sort of a sci-fantasy, it has one of the coolest “dragons” I’ve seen in a while, plus Vikings(!) and a “magical” sword.

    And the story as it unfolds is well done, even though you can spot its bones now and then. I was happily surprised when I DVR’d it on a whim, and watched it weeks later.

    Comment by Gruud - October 2, 2013 12:59 pm

  8. Just rewatched Krull and still love it. Dragonslayer is definitely my favorite fantasy movie, though pickings are pretty darn slim.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - October 2, 2013 2:09 pm

  9. The original Conan movie remains polarizing among REH fans, but I think it’s awesome (and awesomely brutal) and a great example of old-school cinematic fantasy from before the dawn of CGI.

    A major omission from this list is the stunning Pan’s Labyrinth.

    I’d also include Chan-wook Park’s unique Thirst, which involves vampirism but is actually more of a bizzaro dark fantasy than a true horror film.

    Comment by Golgonooza - October 2, 2013 6:24 pm

  10. I realize I may be staking out a minority position (seems to be par for the course) but I’ve always quite liked “Ladyhawke’s” Allan Parson’s Project soundtrack. It has never struck me as the least bit cheesy. Not every fantasy film requires Basil Poledouris or Howard Shore, as terrific as both are. Why must fantasy be set to classically inspired music? “Highlander” is a case in point. Anyway, that’s my two drachma worth.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - October 2, 2013 6:43 pm

  11. For me, Dragonslayer is a pleasure of the non-guilty sort. The characterization is so tightly, vividly, and efficiently done, and every significant character has something organic to him or her that is at odds with the closest tropes. The dialogue crackles, the creepy parts creep, and yes, there’s that brilliant restraint.

    A pleasure I’d call guilty would be something like, say, the rendering of REH’s recurring character Kull. Kevin Sorbo sauntered through Kull the Conqueror. I believe Harvey Fierstein played a minor role, and really, his performance was one of the less campy things about the film. It was an awful movie. It was exactly the awful movie I expected it to be when I bought my ticket, and it was exactly the awful movie I needed to anaesthetize myself while I crammed for my grad school exams.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - October 2, 2013 10:49 pm

  12. The absolute best part of Dragonslayer: Ian (Emperor Palpatine) McDiarmid’s encounter with Vermithrax Pejorative.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 2, 2013 10:58 pm

  13. Ah, I had forgotten about Labyrinth. It’s been too long. Both the 1924 and 1940 versions of The Thief of Bagdad are good too.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - October 3, 2013 12:15 am

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