Making any movie is an act of imagination. Even fact-focused documentaries are the result of their creators’ vision.
But fantasy movies take that imagination to its extremes, populating worlds with elves and magic–and sometimes things that are new even to the world of fiction.
In this list, we’re taking a look at some of the very best fantasy movies that Hollywood has ever served up. We’re doing our best to ignore sci-fi fantasy for now (despite its laser swords and force powers, you won’t find Star Wars here).
But there’s still plenty of variety on our list of the best fantasy movies, which includes everything from Golden Age classics to experimental contemporary works.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
The best Harry Potter movie is based on the best Harry Potter book, and both of them are titled Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This isn’t up for debate, so don’t @ me.
Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary directing helped bring Prisoner to life and captured the essence of what remains the most tonally unique Harry Potter story.
Sure, later installments in the series were more serious and featured higher body counts.
But the following movies never quite recaptured the uneasy tone of Prisoner’s Hogwarts-in-lockdown, in which Harry’s mind and emotions are under attack from a creepy crew of Dementors who are there with the blessing of Hogwarts’ trusted administrators.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of fantasy cinema. The Return of the King was the most awarded installment in the series, but this first entry might be the most impressive.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson turned the least exciting installment of Tolkien’s saga into a thrilling movie that had audiences clamoring for more. Fellowship’s action has aged better than the surfing-on-shields absurdity of The Two Towers, and it hit its narrative beats better than The Return of the King and its interminable final act.
The original film runs just shy of three hours, but superfans need not stop there: The extended cut adds another 30 minutes. That’s about three and a half hours of epic fantasy — or one The Irishman’s worth, if you prefer.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Everyone loves The Princess Bride, and for good reason. It manages to tell a thrilling and moving story without ever taking itself too seriously.
It’s quotable, iconic, and deceptively simple, and it mixes fantasy clichés (the whole thing is framed as a bedtime story told by a grandfather) with jokes that subvert the genre (“Have fun storming the castle!”) and a story and characters that transcend it.
There has never been as memorable, as beloved, and as infinitely rewatchable as this one. It’s a film to treasure in youth, enjoy into adulthood, and pass on to the next generation.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the Holy Grail (sorry) of Monty Python movies. Accessible and iconic (and PG rated!), it’s the most mandatory of the British comedy troupe’s flicks. It’s among the funniest, too. The film is, of course, a send-up of Arthurian legend.
Monty Python’s brilliantly stupid take on the fantasy epic brought us such unforgettable figures as the killer rabbit and the increasingly limbless Black Knight.
There’s plenty of stuff in the often self-serious genre of high fantasy to laugh at, and Monty Python covers most of it in a swift 92 minutes that are dense with gags and quotable moments.
RELATED: Arthurian Legend Movies, Ranked
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
We’re dipping our toe into fantasy-horror here, but the bizarre and oddly unthreatening monsters of Pan’s Labyrinth help root this genre-bending film firmly enough in fantasy for our purposes.
And if Pan’s Labyrinth is a fantasy film, then it clearly belongs on any list of the best fantasy movies.
This dark and beautiful movie could only have been made by Guillermo del Toro.
Spirited Away (2001)
Japan’s Studio Ghibli has made more than its fair share of delightful animated fantasy films–they’re also the folks behind My Neighbor Totoro–but Spirited Away was an achievement even by their high standards. Imaginative, memorable, and often strange, it’s so much more than a kids’ movie.
Spirited Away’s protagonist is a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro, who becomes trapped in a spirit world when her parents are turned into pigs. Yeah, it’s as weird as it sounds, but it’s also distinctive, stylish, and strangely charming.
RELATED: Ranking the Studio Ghibli Movies
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was based on Roald Dahl’s book. And while they got the title wrong (Dahl’s book was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, not Willy Wonka), they got the vibe right: this classic film manages to mirror Dahl’s flair for making dark humor feel light.
It’s all smiles even as child after child suffers karmic justice at the hands of Mr. Wonka’s rather unsafe chocolate factory, and the film features an iconic performance from Gene Wilder for good measure.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
You have to respect the classics. The Wizard of Oz’s revolutionary use of color film remains effective decades later, and while its plot does a bit of violence to Frank L. Baum’s book (spoilers: the Emerald City is a sham in the book), it’s still a classic story.
It’s also one of the most recognized and best-loved films ever made, so if you’re still hiding the fact that you’ve never seen The Wizard of Oz, it’s time to get with the program.
Big Fish (2003)
Based on the excellent Daniel Wallace novel of the same name, Big Fish is a movie about tall tales and the outsized impression that fathers have on their sons.
A last chance for a dying father and his estranged son to mend their relationship forms the frame story for absurdly unreliable flashbacks, as the father weaves over-the-top tales about his own young adulthood.
With Tim Burton at the helm, the father's fantasy sequences feel more vivid than the truth.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
The Seventh Seal introduced the world of legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Set during the Black Death, the iconic film focuses on a chess showdown between a medieval knight and Death himself.
The Seventh Seal is more than just a great fantasy movie: it’s one of the all-time great works of cinema.
This one is in Swedish, so be prepared to read some subtitles if you don't speak the language. Fantasy fans in general and fantasy-focused cinephiles in particular will find that The Seventh Seal is well worth a little bit of reading.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
The weird and wonderful 1980s flick The Dark Crystal takes the puppeteering skills of Jim Henson and Frank Oz and puts them to work in a serious and powerfully imagined fantasy world. This is no Muppet Movie — it's a high fantasy story starring strange-looking puppets.
If you can't get enough of The Dark Crystal, we have good news: the world of The Dark Crystal is back in a big way thanks to a prequel series from Netflix. The Netflix effort maintains the high production quality of the original and uses CGI sparingly in order to enhance the puppet-heavy visuals.
Shrek is one of the most gut-bustingly funny children's movies of all time. Its smart sendups of fairy tales and fantasy tropes (and of the many fairy-tale films of DreamWorks rival Disney) include plenty for parents and other grown-ups to laugh at.
Shrek is a family film in the truest sense, and it has stood the test of time (though the same can't be said for all of its sequels — there are some less polished films among those). As fantasy comedies go, this one is hard to beat.
Matilda is an underrated 1990s gem. It was directed by Danny DeVito (who also acted in the film), and DeVito's commitment to the bizarre and sometimes dark tone of Roald Dahl might've contributed to the film bombing at the box office.
Critics loved it, though, and audiences have since come around and helped to make Matilda a cult classic. Matilda wasn't appreciated enough in its own time, but it's not too late for you to enjoy it properly now.
Highlander is a gloriously unsubtle action-fantasy film about an immortal Scottish warrior coming out of retirement in New York City for a duel that will decide the fate of the human race.
The rock band Queen contributed songs to the soundtrack, Sean Connery plays a Scottish guy named Ramirez, and the hero's day job is running an antiques shop.
Highlander is a cheesy film that failed to impress either critics or audiences when it first appeared, but it has since become a cult classic. It's big, dumb, fun, and a must-watch for fantasy fans.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water won an Oscar for Best Picture, making it the first fantasy film to do so since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The Shape of Water is a very different sort of fantasy than Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is, though.
Guillermo del Toro’s film owes more to magical realism than to high fantasy, and the focus of the drama is an unlikely love story between a deaf woman and a misunderstood and abused aquatic creature.
The Shape of Water is a superb film that proves just how surprising and moving fantasy can be.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The NeverEnding Story is a children’s fantasy classic. A big budget (especially for a German film) allowed The NeverEnding Story to feature impressive visual effects, and the story — taken from the book of the same name by Michael Ende — helps the film keep pace with its own spectacle.
The NeverEnding Story does, in fact, end — in fact, the film clocks in at a lean 94 minutes. But there’s magic to spare, and the film got two sequels (the first of which covers the second half of Ende’s book; this initial installment only gets halfway through the novel’s story).
The BFG (2016)
For a Steven Spielberg film, The BFG flew under the radar a bit. Its modest success at the box office was considered disappointing, and it’s easy to imagine that a lot of fantasy fans missed the movie entirely.
But whatever the reason that The BFG failed to make it as a blockbuster was, it certainly didn’t have much to do with the quality of the film. Critics approved of the flick, which is a deft adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book.
Spielberg cuts out a bit of the darker stuff from Dah’s original novel, which leaves The BFG feeling much more optimistic and a little bit more focused. The result is a straightforward and very enjoyable fantasy film aimed at younger audiences.
The BFG deserved better box office fortunes than it got, but that’s not your problem — you can just grab a digital rental and enjoy it belatedly right now.
Featured still from "The Fellowship of the Ring" via New Line Cinema.