Fantasy movies provide a true escape from reality, bringing viewers to faraway lands with magical powers, creatures, and beings. The farthest depths of imagination are brought to the surface in the different stories that fall under the category of fantasy. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary!
The best fantasy movies ever made are those that often inspire massive franchises, introduce novel aspects to the oversaturated genre, or are impactful and memorable enough to stay with audiences for years. These are also the ideal movies for viewers looking for the must-see fantasy films, as they defined and continue to change the enduring genre.
Updated on September 29, 2023, by Hannah Saab:
With recent award-winning adaptations of classic tales like Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and upcoming attempts like Wonka (December 15, 2023), it’s easy to see that the best fantasy movies ever made tend to have an enduring influence on cinema. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of the very best from the genre that fans should consider essential viewing.
30 ‘The Green Knight’ (2021)
A visually stunning movie based on the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” director David Lowery’s 2021 masterpiece is an underrated story of courage, mortality, and what it means to be human. The Green Knight follows Gawain (Dev Patel), as he embarks on a perilous journey to keep his word to the titular character. Along the way, he meets otherworldly creatures and people with bad intentions.
With an enchanting atmosphere that holds viewers’ attention throughout Gawain’s magical odyssey, it’s easy to overlook The Green Knight’s philosophical themes and pressing questions about life and death. The protagonist’s journey is as much a quest to prove himself as it is to discover who he really is, pointing the mirror at audiences and their own paths forward.
29 ‘A Monster Calls’ (2016)
Directed by J. A. Bayona, A Monster Calls is a modern classic that tells the heartfelt story of Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy who struggles with his mother’s terminal illness. When the titular Monster (Liam Neeson) shows up on his bedroom window one night, the biggest adventure of his life begins.
Visually striking and emotionally powerful, A Monster Calls seamlessly blends reality and fantasy, highlighting the transformative power of magic and imagination (especially in the darkest times). Its unflinching depiction of grief and the healing effect that stories can have is unmatched, and will likely capture fans’ hearts for years to come.
28 ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988)
A groundbreaking movie that combined live action and animation, director Robert Zemeckis‘ Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes place in a reality where Toons (cartoon characters) live alongside humans. It follows the story of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), an unlucky private detective, as he investigates a murder involving the famous cartoon character Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer).
With its unique mix of film noir and vibrant animation, the 1988 film became an instant hit and introduced fan-favorite characters like the iconic Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) and the unforgettable Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). It was a pioneer in the field of visual effects and animation that’s still astonishingly fun to watch today.
27 ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964)
Director Robert Stevenson‘s Mary Poppins is a beloved fantasy musical movie that transcends generations of fans. Set in London, the film revolves around the Banks family, who hire the titular whimsical nanny (one of Julie Andrews‘ most iconic characters) who has a unique way of caring for the two mischievous children.
Alongside Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a charming chimney sweep, Mary Poppins takes the kids on extraordinary and magical adventures that open up a new world full of excitement and wonder. The influential film is fondly remembered by most as an integral part of their childhood, as it captures the innocent perspective and the imaginative world of young kids. Legendary catchy songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” have also helped it maintain its status as a timeless classic.
26 ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993)
Bill Murray stars as the cynical and self-centered weatherman Phil Connors in director Harold Ramis‘ Groundhog Day. The iconic film is centered on Phil’s seemingly ordinary task to cover the Groundhog Day events in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where he soon finds himself strangely trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over again.
Seamlessly combining humor and philosophy, Groundhog Day explores Phil’s transformation as he learns to appreciate the small stuff that makes every loop bearable. Murray’s standout performance as the protagonist helps his character’s arc and the lessons he learns resonate with viewers, who probably won’t mind watching this more than once.
25 ‘Excalibur’ (1981)
Excalibur is an epic medieval fantasy film that retells the legendary tale of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the titular sword. Directed by John Boorman, the classic movie draws mythic elements of Arthurian legend to tell its story, which is centered on the rise of King Arthur (Nigel Terry), his quest to unite Britain, and the hindrances he faces from the evil sorceress Morgana (Helen Mirren) and his own flawed knights.
The 1981 film is one of the best King Arthur movies thanks to the way it captures the grandeur of Arthurian legend thanks to its lush and visually striking cinematography and sweeping musical score. Aside from transporting viewers to a medieval world of magic, the fantasy film is also credited with launching the careers of a number of A-list actors today, including Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart.
24 ‘Wings of Desire’ (1987)
Director Wim Wenders‘ Wings of Desire is a haunting romantic fantasy set in post-war Berlin, where two angels, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), silently observe and comfort the city’s inhabitants. One day, Damiel discovers newfound feelings for a lonely trapeze artist, who eventually inspires him to embrace mortality in order to experience human love.
Hailed as a philosophical masterpiece, Wings of Desire takes the mundane aspects of the human experience and sheds a magical light on them. Damiel’s decision to leave behind his life as an angel to become a mere mortal for the sake of love highlights this moving perspective on the human condition.
23 ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924)
Often hailed as one of the greatest silent movies ever made, Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad is a crucial masterpiece in the fantasy genre. It’s an adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights and revolves around the classic story of a poor thief who falls for the beautiful daughter of the wealthy and powerful Caliph of Baghdad.
The fantasy-adventure film is a triumph of visual effects and set new benchmarks not just within the genre, but for cinema as a whole. Its ornate sets, gorgeous costumes, and groundbreaking production design immediately set it apart and cemented its place as an influential masterpiece.
22 ‘Life of Pi’ (2012)
Director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a beloved classic that needs no introduction. Based on Yann Martel’s eponymous 2001 novel, the film depicts the unlikely bond and wacky misadventures that two shipwreck survivors experience as they drift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean.
With a stellar performance from Suraj Sharma (who plays the sixteen-year-old survivor Pi Patel) anchoring the magical odyssey, Life of Pi takes audiences on an artful story of resilience and faith. As Pi and the surviving tiger become closer together, the boundless ocean throws life-threatening dangers their way. All in all, the film is a masterful blend of beautiful scenery, thrilling moments, and thought-provoking underpinnings that have made it an award-winning work that has stood the test of time.
21 ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957)
The film that helped the legendary director Ingmar Bergman become a renowned figure in world cinema, The Seventh Seal is a timeless masterpiece. It follows the story of a disillusioned Swedish knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), who comes home from the Crusades only to be greeted by the harrowing result of the Black Death in his community. When he meets Death (Bengt Ekerot), he challenges him to a chess match that could cost him his life.
A profound and contemplative work of art, The Seventh Seal is a meticulously crafted film that uses symbolism and poetic imagery to discuss philosophical and universal themes like life, mortality, and faith. It’s one of the best existentialist movies of all time, and is a must-see for viewers looking to confront similar tough questions.
20 ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982)
The opus known as The Dark Crystal is a fantastical tale chronicling the journey of Jen (Stephen Garlick), the one surviving member of a Gelfling tribe. His grueling quest is to acquire a sliver of the titular crystal, a powerful jewel that, upon breaking, plunged the world into darkness. Jen’s mission has one main goal – to reassemble the crystal – while also stopping the ruinous Skeksis, and restoring balance to the cosmos.
The influence of cult classic The Dark Crystal on the fantasy genre is remarkable. It was a groundbreaking showcase of the latest in puppetry, animatronics, and practical effects, which all seamlessly combine to create a wondrous world of magical creatures and stunning landscapes. It marked an important point in the genre in the 80s and was a critically re-assessed hot topic of discussion well into the 90s. Its influence is still felt in the craftsmanship behind fantasy films today.
19 ‘The Green Mile’ (1999)
In director Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile, viewers are taken on a heart-wrenching journey on death row at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the Great Depression. Based on the eponymous novel by Stephen King, the renowned three-hour-long movie depicts the fantastical events following the arrival of the death row inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who is a gentle giant with supernatural abilities. He forms a bond with one of the guards, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), whose life is forever changed by their brief friendship.
With a tour-de-force performance from Hanks and Duncan and a deeply emotional story, The Green Mile is a fantasy film that’s impossible to forget. It has surprisingly strong commentary on the flaws of the judicial system, prejudice, and abuse of power. Plus, it’s hard not to shed a tear at its heartbreaking conclusion.
18 ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)
A Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece that appeals to audiences’ inner child, My Neighbor Totoro tells a touching tale of innocence and beauty (with a dash of magic). It revolves around the bond between two sisters, who make a new adorable friend, Totoro, who introduces them to all kinds of fun adventures and other magical wood spirits in their new home.
With gorgeous animation to complement its heartwarming story, My Neighbor Totoro has something to offer viewers of all ages. It reminds fans to embrace the possibilities and expand their imaginations, and has an infectious sense of wonder that audiences will carry with them long after the credits roll.
17 ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984)
From director Wolfgang Petersen (in his first English-language movie) and based on Michael Ende’s 1979 novel, the 1984 adaptation, The NeverEnding Story, is a timeless classic that chronicles Bastian’s (Barret Oliver) adventures in Fantasia. The young warrior has the crucial task of stopping the dark force known as the Nothing, which threatens the magical realm and everything in it.
With stunning practical effects and realistic puppetry, The NeverEnding Story is a live-action fairytale movie remembered for its immersive world and all the beloved characters (like the Luckdragon and Atreyu) that come with it. Bastian’s journey is nothing short of exhilarating and inspiring, and is one that has touched the hearts of millions across the globe and spans different generations.
16 ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989)
Based on W. P. Kinsella‘s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, Field of Dreams is a widely acclaimed sports fantasy film that tells the story of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner). Ray is a farmer who decides to construct a baseball field in his cornfield, which is then visited by the ghosts of baseball legends like Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
A stirring masterpiece that highlights the power of love, second chances, and human connection, Field of Dreams is a defining movie that stirred an entire generation. Ray’s story is just as relevant today as ever before, and his experiences are forever etched in fans’ minds (especially his tear-jerking final game with his father).
15 ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)
An award-winning Tim Burton movie about an artificial humanoid with scissors for hands, Edward Scissorhands tells the tale of the titular protagonist (played by Johnny Depp), who lives in isolation for years following the sudden death of his lonely creator (played by Vincent Price). When he’s discovered by the kind Peg (Dianne Wiest), he moves to the suburbs and soon forms a connection with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder).
Melancholic, romantic, and enchanting all at once, Edward Scissorhands – at its core – is a story about acceptance and an ode to those who are ostracized for being different. Its imaginative set pieces and distinct visual style perfectly complement its wholly original story, which manages to leave an inspiring message about embracing individuality (which still resonates with fans today).
14 ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017)
Guillermo del Toro‘s visionary storytelling transports viewers to a dark fantasy setting where a custodian, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), in a high-security laboratory unexpectedly falls in love with an amphibian man (played by Doug Jones) being confined there. Together, they try to escape before Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) sanctions riskier experiments that could lead to the man’s death.
Full to the brim of del Toro’s recognizable trademarks, the fantasy film highlights both the beautiful and flawed parts of love and humanity. Its heart-wrenching story (that comes with a haunting score) is a love letter to the way true romance can transcend boundaries, no matter the cost.
13 ‘King Kong’ (1933)
King Kong is a 1933 adventure film that holds the distinction of being the first movie in the franchise. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the cinematic masterpiece tells the classic story of the monstrous Kong who becomes obsessed with the beautiful Ann Darrow (Fay Wray).
Aside from putting the now-iconic story to the big screen, the film is remembered for slick editing and surprisingly convincing (at that time) effects, which made its scariest sequences effective. It has had a lasting impact not just on the fantasy genre, but on the monster and horror genres, too. It’s worth noting that some aspects of the movie haven’t aged well, as it has been criticized for racist and sexist themes that are of its time.
12 ‘La Belle et La Bête’ (1946)
A stunning work of art and a classic of French cinema, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is a romantic fantasy film that tells a “tale as old as time” of Belle (Josette Day), a young woman who ends up in a magical castle with the complicated character known as the Beast (Jean Marais). Belle originally only stays to save her father’s life, but soon learns more about the Beast and the magic surrounding the castle.
La Belle et la Bête has gone down in cinematic history as one of the greatest fairytale adaptations ever made. Its timeless message about compassion and unconditional love is one that still influences more modern takes on the story (and fairytale movies in general). It’s not too far-fetched to say that it was a significant contributor to the blueprint that makes up similar fantasy romance films today.
11 ‘Pinocchio’ (1940)
Arguably still the best adaptation of Pinocchio today, 1940’s Pinocchio is a beloved Disney classic and its second-ever animated film (following 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). It tells the legendary tale that has captured the hearts of countless viewers, who will forever remember the story of Geppetto’s wooden puppet, who wants nothing more than to become a real boy.
The film’s cutting-edge animation, colorful backgrounds, and memorable characters turned it into a triumph when it first premiered. The magic it brought to the big screen is one that several subsequent adaptations still try (and mostly fail) to recreate in modern cinema.
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