Thank Gandalf! J.R.R. Tolkien’s riveting fantasy epic Lord of the Rings is once again hypnotizing Earth. As I write, Peter Jackson is booting up its cinematic prequel The Hobbit, probably with
Really, what is there to say? Peter Jackson’s CGI-soaked fever dream of innocence and evil revolutionized blockbuster cinema in the early ’00s and made a zillion dollars to boot (look it up!) — all while remaining mostly faithful to Tolkien’s densely fascinating source texts. Although all the films collected Oscars, Return of the King scored a Best Picture statue in 2003, the only fantasy film to ever achieve that feat. Even a genre colossus like James Cameron’s Avatar couldn’t do that, nor could any other sci-fi film in cinema history. Put that Old Toby in your Shire pipe and smoke it.
I’m a man, and not partial to crying, especially during films. But my wife and I bawled over our daughter’s crib like terrorized babies after watching this stunning nightmare of fantasy and fascism from director Guillermo Del Toro, which happened to be one of 2006’s finest films. Pan’s Labyrinth is everything contemporary fantasy film should be, from its Nazi-fied historical setting to its anomalous mystical creatures to its utterly shattering story of youthful sacrifice in the name of peace.
After watching it, it makes total sense that Peter Jackson snatched up Del Toro to direct the upcoming Hobbit films. Del Toro eventually bailed for more stable shores, unable to wait for the film’s studio to sort out its financial madness. And while Jackson might take over the director’s chair and do another perfect job, the mind reels at what fearsome magic Del Toro would have wrought out of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. A shame.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
It’s exceedingly hard to choose one standout amongst all the Arthurian and medieval sagas available to fantasy hounds. From Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and John Boorman’s Excalibur to Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and beyond, our cup runneth over with candidates.
But truthfully, that cup could fit inside Monty Python’s immortal Holy Grail, and still not fill it up.
Although the members of the British comedy group were more or less miserable when they made it, the unrelentingly hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail remains the most memorable, quotable and hard-hitting critique of the Middle Ages and its phased-out phantasms in existence.
The 1975 movie remains a perpetual meme generator, with way too many skits to forget. From its skewering of clueless monarchy, witless mobs and callous social services (“Bring out yer dead!”) to its roll call of unforgettable characters including Tim the Enchanter, a killer bunny and, of course, the gory existential nightmare known as The Black Night (above), it’s a fantasy satire that will joke you to death.
The Wizard of Oz
Like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, this coming-of-age parable was a cinematic watershed, and has since become one of the most instantly recognizable films of all time. Which is a brilliant kind of payback, given that The Wizard of Oz wasn’t a box-office supernova upon its release in 1939, but only became a legend as time danced forward in its ruby slippers. It’s been a capital phenomenon ever since, spawning countless cultural homages and spoofs, as well as thankful returns and remasters. Last year, the The Wizard of Oz 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition was released on Blu-ray and DVD, offering hours of unseen bonus features and a pristine version fully deserving of its sparkling resolution and restoration. We’re finally in the 21st century, Toto.
A benevolent mash of Lord of the Rings and every other magical source text in history, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book and film series is an unrepentant earner. Its next installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (above), arrives in November, but like other cinematic adaptations it will probably having a very hard time stacking up against Alfonso Cuaron’s mind-warping classic Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In fact, it would be hard to argue that any of the Harry Potter films, besides Cuaron’s, can stand wand-to-wand with the other classics on this list and not get its Muggle ass kicked. But lock the film geeks in the basement and consider reality as we know it: From its blockbuster films and new Harry Potter theme park to the incontrovertible fact that Rowling’s series has reinvigorated reading as an international pastime, the unassuming wizard belongs in this list like fantasy belongs in your life.
Alice in Wonderland
Like The Wizard of Oz, this rewarding if schizophrenic Disney cartoon wasn’t a hit upon its release in 1951. After years of stops and starts, Alice in Wonderland was divided between too many directors, writers, musicians and other talented artists who wanted to stamp Disney’s adaptation with their own style. Alice initially pissed off the Lewis Carroll purists and didn’t stun audiences. That is, until the day-trippers got hold of it. Once they did in the ’60s and ’70s, Alice transformed into a druggy cult classic. Which it really is beneath the whimsy, given all the spirits, mushrooms, pills and pipe-weed being consumed onscreen and in its audiences. But it’s also a resolute family classic, from Alice’s duet with snobby flowers to her showdown with the explosive Queen of Hearts. Throw in some intoxicating visuals, multilevel narrative (especially with the Mad Hatter) and disorienting comedy, and Alice in Wonderland’s 1951 iteration handily beats the crowd-pleasing, CGI-infested replicant Tim Burton unleashed this year.
Japanese animation auteur Hayao Miyazaki is a fantasy professional like few others. Most of his films could serve as suitable electives for this list, from his most decorated (Spirited Away) to his most underrated (Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Castle of Cagliostro). But this enviropocalyptic vision of a verdant, sentient planet at war with its resource-hogging people is easily his most palpitating work, and definitely not kids’ stuff. Far from being an anticapitalist sermon, Princess Mononoke is a measured meditation on technology and nature, and a bloody, sobering reminder of what happens when either one has its unfettered way. Don’t sleep on it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Wait, you thought George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark was a historical epic? An action serial? A serially epic historical action? Nope, it’s a stone-cold fantasy classic about smacking down the hated Nazis, albeit in a louder, more blockbusting way than Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Lucas and Spielberg’s world-beating first film in the series just went heavy on the fight and chase sequences and light on the psychodrama. To stunning effect, considering how well the film has aged even as its later installments — especially its lamentably sci-fantastic most recent entry, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — have steadily sucked wind. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fantasy immortal that should have won Best Picture in 1981.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Finally, this buccaneer bodice-ripper engorged with zombies, magic and monsters deserves inclusion in this heady list, if only for Johnny Depp’s effortlessly sublime hilarity as Captain Jack Sparrow. Like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, the Pirates of the Caribbean films were box-office burners. But unlike Potter, they began life as one of Disneyland’s best rides, rather than becoming a theme-park standout later. While many of the movies’ dramatic scenes and action sequences tended toward the ridiculous, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has always been ridiculously entertaining. And probably still will be, once production gets underway on its first 3-D exercise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, next May. Depp’s Jack Sparrow has already turned everything he has touched into cinema gold, but can he keep pace with Harry Potter? Who cares? He’s a freak-flag riot.
This article appeared at WIRED