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The 8 Ball: Top 8 High Fantasy Films

December 16, 2014 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Lord of the Rings

Top 8 High Fantasy Films

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

It’s the end of an era this week as Peter Jackson’s stay in Middle-Earth comes to a close. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies releases on Wednesday and will be the final chapter of Jackson’s six-film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The franchise has not only made billions of dollars and created careers for several stars, it has opened the floodgates to high fantasy films. The genre was once deeply looked down upon, at times considered dirtier by mainstream Hollywood studios than even horror. But no more. With BOTFA hitting, I thought this would be a good time to look at the greatest high fantasy films ever made.

Caveat: First off, let’s define the term. “High Fantasy” is commonly referred to as stories with a fantastical element that exist within their own imaginary world. This is distinguished from such fantasy as the Harry Potter franchise, which contains magic and dragons and such but exists within a real-world context. The “real world” can exist, but the primary world depicted must be separated from it and the vast majority of the film must take place within this fantasy setting. That is the ruleset I was working off of here.

Just Missing The Cut

Dragonheart (1996)
MirrorMask (2005)
Legend (1985)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
The Dark Crystal (1984)

#8: Conan the Barbarian (1982)

As I said, the majority of big-budget high fantasy films have come about after the turn of the century. That being said, the majority of my list takes place before that point because while they were the kinds of film Hollywood turned its nose up at, some of the most treasured films of the 1980s in particular came out of the fantasy genre. Conan the Barbarian is a good example of that, and one that defied everything to launch a new movie star in the process. Arnold Schwarzenegger had already been in several films by the time the opportunity to star in Conan came around, but this is undoubtedly the one that made him a star. Schwarzenegger was perfectly cast in John Milius’ adaptation of the Robert E. Howard stories, playing the eponymous warrior to the tee. Conan is a film that holds up nicely to this day, something that sets it apart from many fantasy films of the era, and Schwarzenegger was helped out by an able cast including James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow. The film wasn’t quite a blockbuster but it became a big hit nonetheless and acquired a legion of fans who rightly revere it to this day.

#7: Willow (1988)

Considering that George Lucas’ Star Wars largely opened up some studio interest in exploiting heroic genre tales, it’s fitting that one of his films make the list. Following Return of the Jedi, Lucas was looking for something new to do. He went back to an old idea he had in 1972 and decided to use the power he now had in Hollywood to get it written and made. The result was Willow, a vastly-entertaining fantasy adventure containing all the hallmarks of the genre. It’s interesting to look at Willow as a George Lucas film because of how similar it is to Star Wars thematically. You have a young, plucky underdog hero who finds himself on a quest not of his own devising, teaming up with an irascible rogue and a motley crew of outcast to battle the oppressive evil threatening their world. But it’s certainly not just a Star Wars rip-off, as Lucas effectively weaves in high fantasy elements that seemed more sci-fi and esoteric in his famous franchise. Val Kilmer, Warwick Davis, Joanne Whalley and Jean Marsh all bring their A-games and deliver great work while Howard takes a relatively low budget and turns it into a film that looks like it cost a lot more. Underrated upon its release, Willow has endured and come out looking well ahead of its time.

#6: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

There are some who will scoff at The Wizard of Oz being as far down the list as it is, and I get that. The film is one of the famous and most beloved films of all-time after all, and it’s strictly personal preference that keeps it this low. The Victor Fleming-directed film is an annual Thanksgiving tradition and it’s just a situation where as I grew older, I was more and more desensitized to the point that I became well and truly sick of the film. I am sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, but even those of us who got tired of the Yellow Brick Road can’t deny how captivating of a film it can be. This was an example of Golden Age filmmaking at its peak, with Judy Garland leading a fantastic cast through musical numbers and magical adventures in the world of Oz. The film has become a classic over the years and many of the most memorable and referenced movie moments in history come from this. Personal opinion aside, its status among the great high fantasies is rock-solid.

#5: Labyrinth (1986)

Labyrinth is one of those films that does start in the real world, but it quickly transitions to the realm of high fantasy. Jim Henson directed this film and while its failure to become a financial success effectively ended his career behind the camera, it is one that he can be proud of on a creative level. Jennifer Connelly fulfills the “hero on a quest” role as Sarah, a girl who must rescue her baby brother from David Bowie’s goblin king Jareth before he’s claimed forever. Henson relied on his puppetry pedigree to make this one work, combining darker elements with very kind-friendly stuff to make an odd sort of film that appeals to many different types of people. Bowie does fine work as the evil Jareth and designer Brian Froud did amazing work, using literary sources such as Wuthering Heights as an inspiration for his visuals. It has become recognized as one of the greats of that era, and rightly so.

#4: The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The NeverEnding Story is a fantasy tale-within-a-tale that works because of its uncompromising vision. That vision, courtesy of director and co-writer Wolfgang Petersen, was strong enough that it angered the original book’s author for straying too hard from his vision. While it certainly takes liberties with the source and doesn’t even adapt the full book, it stands strong on its own merits as one of the most memorable fantasy films of its era. The NeverEnding Story was a shockingly dark and even terrifying film at times; granted, I was eight at the time but I still get chills when I rewatch it and see Gmork. Petersen was effective at relaying the story within a story’s emotional impact; the loss of Artax in the swamp is one devastating moment among many. This was one of the rare films that became a serious fantasy hit during that era, which unfortunately spawned two sequels that suffered from diminishing returns. The original is still a classic though.

#3: Stardust (2007)

After several trips into the past, we get a look at a more recent fantasy great in Stardust. Neil Gaiman is a brilliant author, but like many authors he has sometimes had injustices done to his work by way of cinematic adaptations. Luckily in his case most of those problems have resulted in the films in question never being produced, but it has still been enough of a headache that when Stardust was announced I was skeptical of how well it would turn out. As I would learn, I had no cause for alarm because Matthew Vaughn did a fantastic job of adapting the tale. The performances by Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro, Charlie Cox and Michelle Pfeiffer are great but what really made it work was Vaughn’s ability to capture a balance between dramatic needs and light-hearted adventure. That tone gave the cast a rich setting to play in and they are clearly having a blast. Gaiman’s publications have gone on to a good history of being adapted since, but Stardust was the one that proved it could be done right.

#2: The Princess Bride (1987)

There is a strong thematic and structural link between The Princess Bride and NeverEnding Story of course; both are told through the eyes of a young boy reading a story that captivates them and we see that story through their eyes. While both are exceptional, Princess Bride gets the edge because it did so while remaining more faithful to the original story and just being more fun. The swashbuckling adaptation of William Goldman’s novel saw the author adapt his own script, something that wasn’t particularly common among fantasy films in that era. Goldman had the right take to bring the story to the big screen and Rob Reiner was right in sync with the story, casting a phenomenal ensemble to bring things to life. Need I repeat all the quotable moments? I hope not, because just about the entire script counts. It’s funny and smart, exciting and thrilling, deeply sentimental but never maudlin. It is very nearly the perfect example of a high fantasy film.

#1: The Lord of the Rings Franchise

Yeah, I know. Obvious choice is obvious. I know that the Hobbit films have lowered some people’s opinions of this franchise as a whole and while I don’t agree, I can understand it. Still, this is pretty much everything that fantasy fans could have ever wanted in a movie. The adaptation of one of the greatest pieces of genre literature had a long and troubled road to the big screen, with several attempted versions falling through before Peter Jackson came along. Jackson was able to pitch a version that a studio could get behind and the rest is history. This was a game-changer in almost every way; it helped push geek-oriented properties to the forefront and it showed that fantasy could be viable in the marketplace as blockbusters. Greatly acted, fantastically shot and capturing the essence of the Tolkien stories perfectly, the Lord of the Rings franchise is without any doubt the greatest example of high fantasy ever set to celluloid.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.