Fantasy movies have been around since the beginning of cinema and are still going strong a century later. From adaptations of well-loved stories from millennia ago to bold new takes on the genre that expand the bounds of what a fantasy movie can do, the best fantasy movies capture the imagination like none other.
While there are plenty of stories that use minor elements of fantasy to make their narratives pop, the greatest fantasy films embrace their genre whole-heartedly and reach bold heights.
Have you own favorite fantasy movies? Leave your picks in the comment section below!
15. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
While the rest of the series may have quickly gone into the toilet, the first Pirates of the Caribbean is still incredibly fun. That’s in large part due to Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, but it’s also because this is the most well balanced and best made of the series. All these years later, it’s still fresh and fun, deftly mixing elements of classic pirate tales, Disney charm, and fantasy elements. If your feelings on The Curse of the Black Pearlhave been soured due to the rest of the series, it deserves a rewatch. This is one of the best live action Disney movies in a long time!
Best Fantasy Feature: The ghostly pirates making up Barbosa’s crew are a fun callback to the Disneyland ride and help push the story into the realm of fantasy. Their march along the ocean floor is still one of the movie’s best visual moments.
14. Sleeping Beauty
It’s one of the most visually stunning Disney animated features ever produced. The beautiful hand drawn and colored animation is simply gorgeous in every frame, bringing the story of Princess Aurora and Maleficent to incredible Technicolor life. While the story may be simple and even slow in some places, it’s still a classic tale that captures the magic of old fantasy stories. It has all the Disney charm and elegance that is associated with the era of classic Disney cartoons and is still a wonder to watch today. It’s a real journey, filled with exquisite visuals that have never been repeated since due to the change in Disney’s animation style as a company.
Best Fantasy Feature: Maleficent herself is easily the most enrapturing fantasy element of Sleeping Beauty. Her castle, goblin army, and transformation into hellish dragon and wonderful fantasy features.
13. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
A poor boy and his grandpa take a trip into the equally wondrous and terrifying chocolate factory of the enigmatic Willy Wonka in hopes of saving their family from poverty. The original film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a perfect blend of old school charm and dark humor that blends well with its dated and low-fi look. Of course, it’s Gene Wilder as the titular factory owner who steals the show, teaching sharp lessons to children while his Oompa Loompa’s sing creepily rehearsed songs about deadly sins. It’s still incredibly charming today and, thankfully, just as weird as it was back then.
Best Fantasy Feature: The entrance into The Chocolate Room underlined by Wilder’s rendition of “Pure Imagination” makes a mark that still resonates visually and sonically decades later.
12. Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy journey into another world in the midst of Spain during World War II is a delicately balance between the wondrous and the horrific. Young Ofelia deals with the horrific world she is living in by literally escaping to another. But is it really a magical world, or is it all in her head? The beauty put onscreen is enrapturing, but there is graphic violence and terror that bring a sense of levity and dread to the entire experience. While there may be countless devastating scenes, it’s up to the viewer to determine whether this is a tragedy or a triumph by the end.
Best Fantasy Feature: While the fantasy world created is almost as horrific as the real world that hero, the terrifying Pale Man is one of the most creative and outright terrifying creatures on film in decades.
11. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
While Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy was a fun and imaginative dive into the world of the half demon/half human adventurer, it’s Hellboy II that reached serious heights. Ron Perlman as Hellboy is fantastic as always (he’s the one true fit for the character) and he’s surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast. Throw them in a far more colorful and complex world with wonderful special and practical effects and The Golden Army is the total package.
Best Fantasy Feature: The Troll Market – a wondrous city underneath the Brooklyn Bridge filled with countless eye-popping creatures and gizmos all done practically. It’s one of Del Toro’s greatest creations thanks to the amazing detail and insane amount of effort put in by the creator and his team.
10. Spirited Away
A young girl is swept off into a fantastical world filled with all manner of magical creatures and strange encounters. Chihiro enters a world filled with mystical creatures and eye-popping locations that is just as dangerous as it is enchanting. Director Hayao Miyazaki creates and enrapturing world that sucks you in while still being mysterious and not completely within the grasp of the viewer. As Chihiro journeys through the realm of spirits, we see her grow and embrace her true strength while still being a relatable and lovable hero. The creatures that surround her are just as engaging and interesting.
Best Fantasy Feature: The strange No-Face, a mystifying being who alternates between being terrifying and lovable. It’s a creature that reflects those around it, showing the influence we have on one another and our world as a whole.
9. Midnight in Paris
Screenwriter Gil Pender travels to Paris on vacation with his fiancée, but ends up being able to travel back in time to Paris in the 1920’s. His nightly travels into the past allow him to speak with the many famous writers of the era, inspiring him in his writings and leading to him falling in love with a woman from the past. Director/writer Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a charming and romantic look at nostalgia, how we all long for a past Golden Age, and what it means to truly embrace the lives we live. Every frame is warm and crafted with care, allowing actors to bring famous faces to life and leading to an unforgettable movie experience.
Best Fantasy Feature: While there is only one fantasy element at play in all of Midnight in Paris, the simple and classy way it’s done – a 1920’s style cab – makes the transition perfect for the story at play.
A young girl moves into a new home with her boring parents and discovers a dazzling world on the other side of a tiny doorway. But what Coraline Jones first believes to be the better version of her world turns into a terrifying alternate reality with a wicked woman who seeks to devour her soul. While it’s a dark concept and there are many frightening developments in store, director Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel is charming and beautiful to watch, with stop motion animation bringing all manner of creatures and twisted realities to vivid life. And at the center of it all is Coraline herself, a bold and strong heroine who leaves as much of an impression as the world she explores.
Best Fantasy Feature: That strange and tiny path into The Other World is a magical accordion-like path, but the way it transitions from wondrous path to adventure to terrifying doorway is testament to the horrors created in Coraline.
7. Groundhog Day
Arrogant TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is forced to relive the same day over and over again when he visits Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Forced to confront his own faults, Phil slowly changes from loathsome to reckless to depressed to finally being a good man. Director Harold Ramis’ fantasy tale is balanced perfectly in all of its elements, featuring a standout performance from Murray and a wonderful mix between funny, charming, and poignant. The laughs and discoveries that come from Phil’s constant time loop never stop, as Groundhog Day mines the concept for everything it has until arriving at it’s pitch perfect conclusion.
Best Fantasy Feature: The very simple nature of the main fantasy conceit at play, reliving the same day over and over, happens so naturally and gracefully that it’s easy to forget this is a fantasy movie. That’s because the plot device unlocks an amazing story.
6. How to Train Your Dragon
There are so many reasons as to why How to Train Your Dragon is easily one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. Amazing animation, tons of laughs, great voice acting, amazing musical score, endearing characters, a vivid world brought to life in every frame, and a story that grabs your heart from the very start and never lets go. The tale of young Viking Hiccup and the dragon Toothless becoming friends and changing their world is simple enough, but it’s incredibly strong thanks to the power of the two lead characters. This movie is filled with laughs, tears, and thrills throughout. While the sequel may not have made the list, it continues the world in strong fashion, as well. But the power of the original is why it is a perfect fantasy tale for viewers of all ages.
Best Fantasy Feature: While every dragon is lovingly made, it’s Toothless who is turned into a wonderful and vibrant character. It’s all due to the animation that brings the Nightfury dragon to vivid life, making Hiccup and the audience quickly fall in love with the creature.
5. The Princess Bride
The reasons why William Goldman’s fantasy novel is a timeless classic are the same reasons why the film adaptation written by Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner has endured for decades. It’s charming, witty, exciting, romantic, filled with fantastic characters, and perfectly executed. Of course, the film adaptation of The Princess Bride also has actors who are pitch perfect for their roles. Every line is quotable, every scene is memorable, and everyone from Cary Elwes to Andre the Giant inhabits his or her role better than any fan could ask for. Through it all, the stories of Wesley and Buttercup’s love and a grandfather reading a story to his grandson are equally touching, making the film play strong on multiple levels at once.
Best Fantasy Feature: While the many heightened elements of the world of Florin bring fun aspects to the narrative, it’s Miracle Max’s cure to being (mostly) dead that brings the spotlight onto the power of love and also leads to many amazing and unconventional moments in the movie’s climax.
4. Beauty and the Beast
It’s the first ever animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and with due cause. The tale of Belle and The Beast’s love is beautifully done, taking everything wonderful from this era of the Disney animation renaissance and applied it to this exquisite adaptation of an ancient fairy tale. The animation brings everything to a colorful but realistic life and the song and dance numbers are unforgettable. From the lead characters to the charming supporting cast to the villainous Gaston, no character in Beauty and The Beast is ever handled in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful story that manages to grab your emotions early on and refuses to let go even once the credits are rolling. This is Disney animation at its finest.
Best Fantasy Feature: The Beast’s curse is obviously the impetus for the entire narrative, but it’s his heart-wrenching and breathtaking transformation back into The Prince due to Belle’s love that brings true power to the narrative.
3. The Harry Potter Series
For as well-loved as the Harry Potter book series has been, the film adaptations have managed to capture almost, if not all, of the magic contained in J.K. Rowling’s series. That’s in large part due to the strength of the narrative that plays out across eight films, each with their own style and focus for the most part. Watching Harry, Hermione, and Ron grow up is part of the charm of these films as well. While there may be some missteps and some casting decisions that don’t work out as well in the long run as others, they are minor in relation to the size and scope of what was accomplished here. There are so many amazing characters brought to life and the emotional impact of the narrative as a whole, as well as many of the films on their own, mean that these can be taken one at a time or binged. As far as the strongest entries, Prisoner of Azkaban, Sorcerer’s Stone, and Order of the Phoenix are the series’ best.
Best Fantasy Feature: The Harry Potter series is all about magic, so in the end, it’s the spells that steal the show from all other fantasy elements. The Patronus Charm, Expelliarmus, and Avada Kedavra all play major roles and create some of the series’ greatest moments.
2. Princess Mononoke
The greatest fantasy tales create a world that audiences immediately want to live in while still being terrified of what they encounter in the story. That’s exactly what happens in director Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. As Ashitaka travels out into the world to seek an end to his curse, he encounters spirits, demons, and creatures that embody the spirit of nature. He also comes into the middle of a conflict between the people of Irontown led by Lady Eboshi and the protectors of the forest, led by the human San. As Ashitaka works to find peace that prevents bloodshed, he sacrifices everything to save lives. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully realized world that comes to life the minute the film starts. There’s a beauty and peace that underlies everything, with stunning animation and Joe Hisaishi’s score working in fantastic tandem.
Best Fantasy Feature: Of the many creatures that make up the mystical world explored in Princess Mononoke, it’s the strange and beautiful Forest Spirit that leads to the most awe-inspiring moments in the movie.
1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
It’s the king of fantasy films. Both a culmination of the many fantasy stories put on screen over the decades and a brand new realization of what a big budget fantasy epic can truly look like on film. Adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s humungous trilogy was no small feat, but Peter Jackson and an enormous crew managed to bring Middle-Earth, hordes of stunning creatures, and the brave heroes who seek to save the world to life with loving care and detail. But’s it’s not just the strength of the production that puts The Lord of the Rings Trilogy at the very top, it’s the narrative itself. Ideas of bravery, sacrifice, fear, greed, and the battle between good and evil all play out on screen, with epic battles being brought to life thanks to the strength of the crew’s vision and Tolkien’s novels. The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the Kingall succeed in their own rights, but the trilogy as a whole is greater than the sum of its already amazing parts. While The Hobbit Trilogy may have been a disappointing and bloated follow-up, The Lord of the Rings is one for the ages.
Best Fantasy Feature: Jaw-dropping creatures and magical spells may enchant and amaze, but it’s The One Ring itself that makes the biggest impact. A tiny piece of gold, its power and inherent evil cause temptation and drive a story that spans an entire world.
Honorable Mentions: The Nightmare Before Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hellboy, The Prestige, Highlander, Stanger Than Fiction, Stardust