February 17, 2019
These things are subjective. They have to be. By what metric does one objectively quantify entertainment value? I believe I’ve said before I don’t really have favorites. I can and do enjoy things equally, without rankings. So what I’m listing herein is merely a current snapshot of what I consider the elite group of fantasy films, appearing without any particular order (perhaps descending, though I won’t be held to it.
What am I considering as a fantasy film? I must necessarily limit this, as the category would otherwise be overbroad. For the purposes of this exercise, fantasy means swords and magic. I’m excluding animated films. Live action only.
Let’s step right through the wardrobe, shall we?
The Lord of the Rings. I’m including all three of Peter Jackson’s films as a single movie. After all they were filmed concurrently. And the source material was written as a single book. (Post World War II paper shortages led to the publication in three volumes. But you knew that.) This is the apex of epic fantasy film making. Everyone has certain quibbles about the script, certain storytelling and characterization decisions. That aside, LOTR has it all: incomparable production value, scenery, special effects, action, and acting. The sheer length of LOTRadds a certain value; quantity has a quality of its own. Really, I don’t think I need to spend more time on this one.
Conan the Barbarian. John Milius and Robert E. Howard may have been cast from the same mold. One can dispute how much of Howard’s Conan ended up in the film. (Or one can head directly to the internet and read the endless disputes on this very topic, thus saving the effort of rehashing the same points.) But whether or not CtB is Conan, it is a tremendous fantasy film. The producers created a marvelously realized fantasy world, this samurai/viking gestalt. The world appears lived in, little looks like a set. Milius maintained a sense of brooding gravitas throughout the story. The fights are terrifically, viscerally entertaining. And who can forget that Basil Poledouris soundtrack?
The Princess Bride. Easily one of the most quotable films of all time. William Goldman’s novel, with much jettisoned, translates perfectly to the screen. Unlike CtB, the sets do look like sets. But that’s deliberate; it is supposed to look like a stylized, idealized fairy tale setting. The casting could not have been improved. The humor sparkles, the action is gloriously Errol Flynn-ish.
Big Trouble in Little China. Like all of these films so far, Big Trouble is endlessly re-watchable. Kurt Russell’s hapless, walking exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect, anchors a cast that appears to be having a delightful time with the material. The action is excellently choreographed. The effects, though dated, remain passable. Big Trouble is one of those films like (for example) The Fifth Element; a movie you can happen upon at any point in the story and happily sit down to enjoy the remainder. It is that engaging throughout the entire running time.
Highlander. There can be only one. Seriously. Some delusional people claim sequels to Highlander exist. But that’s clearly absurd. There can be — and is — only one. But, Ken, your methodology requires swords and magic. Look, hair-splitting reader, they are immortals. It’s magic, okay? Another quotable film, with bit characters getting some of the best lines. Then there’s the French Scotsman and the Scottish Egyptian. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Ladyhawke. I’m happily in the minority in that I like the soundtrack to this film. This one, I believe, succeeds largely due to the casting. For a period piece, some of the set decorating and costuming might be jarring to sticklers for historical authenticity. But it gets a pass because it is, in fact, a fantasy. This is a stirring, romantic tale, with moments of tense action and — thanks to Matthew Broderick — droll wit.
Excalibur. Thank God John Boorman never filmed his acid trip of a script for LOTR. But some of the elements seem to have made their way into Excalibur, a film one might look at as Jodorowsky’s Le Morte d’Arthur. There is some trippy stuff in here. I like that the story sticks with the anachronistic, chivalric Arthurian tales instead of positing some plausible, pseudo-historical Arthur from the post-Roman, Saxon invasion era. Some of the action doesn’t hold up, looking a bit clunky and staged. And not all of the acting is top-notch. But it is still a visually appealing, imaginative piece of fantasy.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Bold opinion: I prefer this to (the absolutely terrific) Time Bandits. What a marvelous collection of whimsy. It isn’t for everyone, I know. But I get a kick out of the eccentric baron and his unique companions stumbling from peril to peril, in danger from gods, giants, emperors and mad moon men.
Army of Darkness. It is a fantasy, damnit. You’ve got castles, knights, wizards (“Now whoa, whoa, whoa right there, spinach chin), demonic monsters, and swordplay. And yes, a chainsaw and a shotgun. Another highly quotable flick. There’s no gravitas here, no whimsy, no painstaking evocation of fairy tales. This is sheer, nonsensical, batshit fun.
The Beastmaster. I haven’t watched this movie in decades. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to know if time or an objective re-watching would diminish this. All I know is that 1980’s Ken sat watching this on Showtime every chance he got. There was Marc Singer getting into sword fights. There were two cute ferrets. (I think they were ferrets.) And there was Tanya Roberts. Tanya Roberts. I rest my case.