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 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.
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.
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, who isn’t done making weird fantasy movies just yet–his latest effort, The Shape of Water, just took home an Oscar for Best Picture.
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.
Featured still from "The Wizard of Oz" via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer