by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
Recently a friend of mine posted a list he found that seemed to represent aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes' selections for the 50 greatest fantasy movies ever made. I'm a chronic list maker, and often gravitate to best lists for a variety of reasons. In this case, I was particularly curious because so many good fantasy movies have been produced that I was keenly interested in how many I might have missed, to say nothing of how much it stretched the definition of "fantasy." I also hoped it proffered movies that compelled discussion. It is, of course, part of why we all read them.
So I read the list.
It got a reaction, but probably not the reaction its makers hoped. Although I thought it offered some wise choices -- Kiki's Delivery Service, Delicatessen, Santa Sangre, and a good deal of Terry Gilliam -- I found it terrible in a number of ways. Given how many exceptional fantasy movies have entertained and delighted audiences for nearly a hundred years, it chose far too many forgettable sequels (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Kung Fu Panda 2, Shrek 2). It selected way too much Disney, and often not terribly interesting Disney at that. Including Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves makes sense, and I see a case for Aladdin (though I don't think it has aged well). But it's too soon to consider Tangled or Brave, despite their strengths, as among the best, and can't help but roll my eyes at The Princess and the Frog.
The worst part about the list, though, was in how it handled its most obvious choices: Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter movies. Yes, they broke ground for fantasy cinema, and attained huge popularity. Yes, at times their visuals inspired a good deal of awe. Yes, in the case of Jackson's now-holy trilogy, they updated Tolkien's leisurely pace for a much more modern audience. But placing all three movies separately? Putting up all eight Harry Potter movies, regardless of their actual quality? I understand recommending the trilogy, I even understand the rationale for choosing the series itself (though I'd hardly classify any of them as among the best fantasy movies ever made), but giving every single movie a nod excludes far too many worthy films. Oh well, at least The Hobbit: An Unexpurgated Journey wasn't there…
And then there were those that just didn't make sense. I enjoyed Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline, but found the movie a chore to finish, well-produced though it is. Ditto the adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. But at least these I argued with on their merits instead of their methodology.
To that end, I decided to offer my own list of great fantasy movies as a companion piece -- and, in some cases, an antidote to what Rotten Tomatoes cobbled together. I decided against offering my own ten-best, for the simple reason that (a) the truly great selections already have a place on the previous list and (b) are entries you should already be familiar with. (Seriously, haven't you already seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter series, The Princess Bride, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Princess Mononoke?) My only real criteria, this time, was to select movies that did not appear on Rotten Tomatoes' list. Hopefully you'll find something of interest in these selections.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924, d. Raoul Walsh). "What I want, I take," Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) tells a holy man in this breathtaking tale adapted from One Thousand and One Nights. At nearly 90 years old, this magnificent tale, complete with princesses, scoundrels, gems stole from the eyes of giant idols, and armies conjured from dust, holds a power and grandeur that few modern productions hope to match. (If you really want a night of great movies, I suggest a double feature of this and the 1940 version; both remain unequaled experiences.)
King Kong (1933, d. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack). The first giant-monster movie remains one of the greatest of adventure stories. Its opening, while leisurely paced, never bores, but the entire picture shifts into high gear once Carl Denham's (Robert Armstrong) film crew arrives at Skull Island, then trips into overdrive when Kong arrives and claims Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as his possession. Dated in some respects (especially in its treatment of native cultures), and hampered by turning the competent Darrow into a scream queen, it nevertheless stands out against sequels, parodies, and dreary remakes.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958, d. Nathan H. Juran). Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his seafaring crew arrive on the island of Colossa with the intention of provisioning their vessel but wind up battling a Cyclops, rescuing Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), and encountering the genie Barani (Richard Eyer), a two-headed roc, a skeleton swordsman, and a dragon, all brought to life by Ray Harryhausen's incredible effects. He created effects for two additional Sinbad pictures (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), both of which have their moments, but never capture the sense of adventure and fun of this fantasy gem.
The Exterminating Angel (1962, d. Luis Buñuel). Guests arrive at a mansion to attend a sumptuous dinner party, but find that nobody can leave. Luis Buñuel's richly surreal film offers a commentary on the fragility of modern society and how easily it can be shattered. One of the few genuine masterpieces of fantasy, and one of the greatest movies ever made. (Buñuel's Simon of the Desert serves as an intriguing companion piece.)
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, d. Victor Erice). As Franco emerges victorious from the Spanish Civil War, a six-year-old girl becomes obsessed with James Whale's Frankenstein and befriends a wounded soldier who seeks refuge in her father's sheepfold. Poetic and haunting, Erice's magnificent movie may not feel enough like fantasy for some, but it evokes the frisson of the best fantasy movies. It also shows how heavily Guillermo Del Toro borrowed from it in making Pan's Labyrinth.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987, d. Ching Siu-tung). A traveling debt collector seeks shelter in a deserted temple outside of a town he is visiting due to his inability to collect his assigned debts. While there, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young woman, and learns that she is in fact a ghost bound to a tree demoness. He sets out to grant her her one wish: that her remains be buried, thus freeing her from servitude. A wicked mix of horror and romantic comedy that remains underappreciated by U.S. audiences.
Paperhouse (1988, d. Bernard Rose). In this strange, genuinely eerie thriller, a sick young girl dreams of being inside a house she has drawn, finding it inhabited by a young boy in a wheelchair and a monstrous man who resembles her father. Elements of Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Carroll seem to fuel this understated picture, which lingers long after the credits have rolled. Bernard Rose went on to direct the intriguing but stilted Candyman.
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990, d. Anthony Minghella). Alan Rickman is a ghost who visits his former girlfriend (Juliet Stevenson), still grieving over his death. Another romantic comedy involving the afterlife (it was released the same year as the insufferable Ghost), it benefits from richly drawn characters with complex motives, and often is very funny, as when Rickman invites his ghosts friends to stay with him and his girlfriend. It's also well-observed and occasionally profound.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999, d. Michael Hoffman). Okay, admittedly, using Shakespeare's classic fantasy love story might be something of a cheat, especially because you already know the story. (Don't you?) Additionally, Michael Hoffman's adaptation has more than its share of detractors, some of whom object from moving the action from Athens to 19th-century Italy, some of whom can't abide the overstuffed production. Still, I find something endearing about Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Titania as she falls in love with Kevin Kline's Bottom, and remain intrigued by Stanley Tucci's turn as Puck. Not the best movie on this list, perhaps, but certainly one of the most charming…
Big Fish (2003, d. Tim Burton). …though Tim Burton's adaptation of Daniel Wallace's magic realist novel charms as well. A love story with a cast of truly bizarre characters, which include a werewolf, a witch, and Siamese twin dancers, it oddly comes off as Burton's most controlled movie, and certainly one of his most heartfelt.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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