The greatest fantasy movies of all time

From Atlantis to Middle-earth, these are the greatest fantasy movies ever made.

Swords and sorcery, monsters and dragons – few genres capture the imagination like fantasy can. Before superheroes got bit by radioactive spiders and science fiction’s spaceships took to the stars, humans gathered around fires and spun tales of heroes and villains immersed in a world of magic.

Since the advent of cinema years ago, countless filmmakers have tapped into this ancient genre for inspiration. While plenty is owed to playwrights like Shakespeare and novelists like J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s still up to those behind and in front of the camera to execute on a vision that, for an audience, can impress over a lifetime. With that in mind, here are some of the greatest fantasy movies of all time.

(Warner Bros.)
Aquaman (2018)

An underwater fantasy in the armor of a superhero blockbuster, Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, and Patrick Wilson anchor James Wan’s lively epic from the DC Comics universe. The fate of Atlantis and the surface world hangs in the balance when reluctant Atlantean king Arthur (Momoa) battles his overlyambitious brother, Prince Orm (Wilson). At times colorful as a Saturday cartoon and as dark as the Mariana Trench, Aquaman proves the Justice League’s corniest member is actually the coolest dude.

(Warner Bros.)
Dragonslayer (1981)

A co-production between Paramount and Disney, this classic ‘80s title skews older than the family-friendly fare Disney was and still is known for. In a kingdom where young women are randomly selected for sacrifice to a dragon, a sorcerer’s apprentice (Peter MacNicol) seeks to slay both the dragon and the tyrannical rule that leverages fear for power. When both Guillermo del Toro and George R.R. Martin says this one is a favorite of theirs, you know you’re dealing with a beast of a movie.

Highlander (1986)

From 16th century Scottish highlands to 1980s New York City, this centuries-spanning cult classic sees Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown clash as immortal warriors engulfed in a blood feud for the ages. Created by Gregory Widen, directed by Rob Minkoff, and immortalized by Queen with their anthem “Princes of the Universe,” Highlander proves that even when you spawn a franchise, there can still only be one.

(20th Century Fox)
Legend (1985)

Conceived by Ridley Scott in between work on his sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner, Scott teamed with novelist William Hjortsberg and together delivered this beautiful-if-mystifying movie that feels like an old storybook you’ve never read. Starring Tom Cruise, Legend tells of a humble hero who must stop the devilish Darkness (Tim Curry) from freezing the world into an eternal winter.

A Monster Calls (2016)

A moving portrait of adolescent grief, J.A. Bayona’s third movie follows a boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who copes with the coming death of his mother (Felicity Jones) by befriending in his dreams a giant tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson. Gorgeous animated segments and dazzling visual effects empower a beautifully melancholic movie that appeals to cinema lovers who find their tastes in the Venn diagram of Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, and Guillermo del Toro.

(Focus Features)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

It doesn’t just tonally set the table for the whole series, but tells its own transporting adventure from start to finish with all of Middle-earth stretching far beyond what even the cameras can capture. Wide-eyed Elijah Wood, surrounded by a stacked ensemble cast, stars as the humble but brave Frodo Baggins who embarks on a quest to destroy the One Ring in the dark heart of Mordor. Hear those first notes of Howard Shore’s immortal score and you just know exactly what kind of adventure awaits.

(Warner Bros.)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)

While some made-for-TV versions may be more beloved, the 2005 Disney blockbuster from director Andrew Adamson is undeniably a crowd-pleaser that gives C.S. Lewis’ influential novel the majestic scope it deserves.

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Helmed by John Milius, this epitome of 1980s Dungeons & Dragons-like cheese not only catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom but proved comic books could make for some good movies. Conan the Barbarian is arguably the definitive version of Robert E. Howard’s sword-wielding brute, with Schwarzenegger and his mile-wide biceps filling the frame with maximal ferocity. All hail the king, baby.

Enchanted (2007)

Starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey at the height of Grey’s Anatomy fame, Enchanted follows an animated princess cursed by a witch to survive in the capital-R real world, where she falls in love with a Manhattan divorce attorney. How do you know… that this is a classic? Because everything about it is simply enchanting.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

After Alejandro Jodorowsky earned underground fame with his surrealist Western El Topo, The Beatles’ John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono, and band manager Allen Klein fronted his next baffling masterpiece: The Holy Mountain, a sacrilegious satire about the perversion of faith. Jodorowsky stars as a cult leader who challenges his followers over rituals – and shake them of their possessions – to become the new gods of the universe. The Holy Mountain defies description entirely on purpose; in the trailer, the narrator boasts it exists “outside the tradition of modern theater.” They are not kidding.

(ABKCO Films)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

It was the source of memes before there even was an internet. The most popular and influential film from British comedy troupe Monty Python lampoons King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, with stubborn Black Knights, rabid rabbits, and obnoxious French soldiers (who fart in their general direction) standing in their way. If you want to know what everyone at the Renaissance Faire is laughing themselves silly over, look no further than this classic from director Terry Gilliam.

(Trafalgar Releasing)
The Dark Crystal (1982)

Skewing darker than anything Jim Henson made before it, this epic fantasy co-directed by Henson and Star Wars’ Frank Oz – set in an original universe of bird-like creatures, brought to life by Henson’s trademark puppetry – bombed at the box office over critics and audiences’ shared confusion regarding its intended audience. But time has been kind to The Dark Crystal, with modern reassessment deeming it a classic.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Nathan Juran’s seminal epic forever raised the bar for cinematic escapism with its then-innovative and still jaw-dropping stop motion animated creatures. Behold a cyclops wrestle a dragon and a skeleton taking up arms with a sword and shield, and ask yourself why today’s super fancy CGI still can’t match up to what the likes of Ray Harryhausen made with clay over half a century ago.

The Northman (2022)

After reshaping modern horror with The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers focused his camera on Nordic folklore in his telling of the legend of Amleth – the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In this feral Viking fantasy, Alexander Skarsgård dominates the screen like a berserker as his Amleth seeks revenge for his fallen father. Fans of video games like God of War, Hellblade, and Dark Souls will find a lot to love here, but so will anyone else who digs pictures with ferocious vigor.

(Focus Features)
Spirited Away (2001)

While many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films belong on this list, Spirited Away stands tall as an all-encompassing representative for Miyazaki’s singular artistry and Studio Ghibli as a respected studio. A young girl, Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi in the original Japanese language track and Daveigh Chase in the English dub) takes a job at a bathhouse run by a witch to turn her parents back after they’ve been transformed into pigs. An elaborate coming-of-age tale about lonesomeness and the sudden end of childhood upon entering the workforce, it’s no wonder why millennials relate to Spirited Away.

(Studio Ghibli)
Labyrinth (1986)

“You remind me of the babe.” In Jim Henson’s final directorial effort, Jennifer Connelly and the unmatched David Bowie co-star in a total heavyweight of an ‘80s flick. Connelly stars as Sarah, a teen obsessed with fairytales who inadvertently wishes for goblins to kidnap her baby brother. She embarks on an adventure of her own to rescue him before time runs out. From adorable puppets of all shapes and sizes to Bowie’s sinister sensuality, Labyrinth makes it very easy to get lost in its dizzying world.

(TriStar Pictures)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Maurice Sendack’s formative book Where the Wild Things Are is just 10 sentences long, but Spike Jonze unearthed all the heart and soul contained in them in his poignant 2009 film version. A portrait of loneliness and the power in imagination, Where the Wild Things Are celebrates the fleeing nature of childhood, even if the movie isn’t necessarily for children.

(Warner Bros.)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Disney was already a powerhouse when Sleeping Beauty opened in 1959, with hits like Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Alice in Wonderland paving its path. But the studio’s destiny to rule was crystallized in Sleeping Beauty, based on the classic tale. All the recognizable tropes of Disney are present and perfected to its very specific wavelengths, from wicked witches to beautiful princesses to the handsome princes who rescue them. When Prince Phillips’ lips touched slumbering Aurora’s, the sleeping giant that was Walt Disney Productions truly woke up.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Another Disney behemoth, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke sing and dance their way to immortality in this endearing tale about a London family swept off their feet (and off their roofs) by an enigmatic nanny from the skies. A stone cold classic with 13 Oscar nominations to its name (with Andrews winning Best Actress), Mary Poppins has for generations made everyone sing out, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Ingmar Bergman’s memorable scenes of a knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been parodied to, ahem, death since the release of The Seventh Seal in 1957. But watching it today is still a chilling experience. It’s a haunting reminder about the futility of faith, and that life and death is simply a game of chance. There may not be bloodshed or monsters slain, but The Seventh Seal still ranks as among the greatest dark fantasies ever imagined.

(SF Films)
The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Challenging notions that movies “for children” are thoughtless, The Secret of NIMH from renowned animator Don Bluth is an elegant adventure about the strength of motherhood and fear of the unknown. An adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s children’s novel, The Secret of NIMH immerses audiences into a kingdom of intelligent rats. Its hero isn’t a wisecracking Han Solo type, but a terrified mother (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman, in her final role) trying to save her son’s life. Acclaimed upon release, The Secret of NIMH was Bluth’s first project after leaving Disney, and sparked a red-hot run of hits that forced his former employer to up its game.

The Princess Bride (1987)

It’s impossible – nay, inconceivable! – to imagine a world without Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Ignored at the box office, this witty rom-com in the disguise of a storybook fantasy found staying power on home video, where audiences sunk their teeth into its quotable script. Framed by a grandfather (Peter Falk) telling a bedtime story to his grandson (Fred Savage), The Princess Bride proves old fashioned romance never goes out of style, though it helps to have chemistry like Cary Elwes and Robin Wright.

(20th Century Fox)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

A movie “based off” one of Disneyland’s oldest rides did not make studio executives sing “Yo, ho!” at first. But Disney struck gold with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, a complete package of popcorn movie perfection made possible by the maximalist vision of Gore Verbinski and stars Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, and an enthralling Johnny Depp. Before IP became king and zombies the dominant story genre of the 2000s, Curse of the Black Pearl proved Disney could compete in a new age ruled by Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Maybe the whole Harry Potter saga belongs on this list. But if we had to pick one, it must be Prisoner of Azkaban, a sequel helmed by decorated auteur Alfonso Cuarón. In Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts, the boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) confronts escaped prisoner Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), who has some untold connection to his parents. A turning point for the series where the Wizarding World felt darker and more unknowable – subtly underscored by the new wispy sounds of wands – Prisoner of Azkaban proved Harry Potter was ready to grow alongside its rapidly maturing audience.

(Warner Bros.)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

In his sixth film, Gullermo del Toro earned auteur status in a modern classic that eloquently summarized the totality of his artistic vision and anti-fascist politics. In Pan’s Labyrinth, fairy tales and 1940s Francoist Spain collide when a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) meets a faun (played by Doug Jones) who tells her she may be the reincarnated princess of the underworld. Gorgeous, haunting, and teeming with metaphor – look up what del Toro meant the Pale Man to symbolize – Pan’s Labyrinth is a visual and artistic triumph that defies categorization.

(Warner Bros.)
Excalibur (1981)

The legend of King Arthur, arguably the granddaddy of all medieval tales, gets the dark fantasy treatment in John Boorman’s astonishing epic. Basically a supernatural biopic, Excalibur traces the entirety of Arthur’s life — from his unholy conception to his death in battle — as it is shaped by the magical sword Excalibur. With a haunting score by Trevor Jones, Boorman’s film inspired generations of Dungeon Masters (including the creators of Dark Souls) and launched the careers of illustrious actors like Liam Nelson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciaran Hinds in his first film role. King Arthur’s story has been told a million times, but still Excalibur is worthy to pull the sword from the stone.

(Warner Bros.)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Technically monumental and artistically resplendent, The Wizard of Oz is one of those rare movies that lives up to its legendary reputation. The second film version of L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel, Victor Fleming’s movie musical made Judy Garland an icon and “Over the Rainbow” the theme song for those who dare to dream of a better future. As a fantasy movie, it’s unmatched as the ultimate fish-out-of-water story; young Kansas farm girl Dorothy (Garland) is whisked to an impossible world and must find her way back home with the aid of new friends. Truly, there is no place like home, and there is no movie like The Wizard of Oz.


From Atlantis to Middle-earth, these are the greatest fantasy movies ever made.