Aside from the brief craze in the 1980s when “Krull” and “Conan” and the like roamed theaters, fantasy had never been a particularly popular genre for filmmakers to tackle —principally because it was too expensive, and also because too few filmmakers took it seriously. But that changed at the start of this century, as the “Harry Potter” and “Lord Of The Rings” films more or less took over Hollywood. Fantasy’s predominance has continued apace, with the distinctly adult “Game Of Thrones” becoming the most popular and critically acclaimed TV show worldwide.
The latest exponent is “Warcraft,” from director Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie. The adaptation of the wildly popular video game franchise, which sees the battling of men and orcs, opens tomorrow having culled mostly poor reviews (here’s our middling one) and little likelihood of domestic box office success. But with the film breaking records in China (where the video game is huge), it may yet unleash another big multi-episode franchise.
But if “Warcraft” isn’t great, that doesn’t mean that other excellent fantasy films haven’t followed in the wake of the Tolkien and Rowling adaptations —though to be honest, there are fewer all-out classics in this genre than in many that we’ve given the Best of the Century treatment to previously. But as a sort of genre-flavored alternative to yesterday’s massive, arthouse-heavy 50 Best Foreign Language Films Of The Century, we’ve curated this list of our 20 favorite fantasy films since the year 2000.
To clarify, because the term is broad and we’ve had several arguments and at least one duel over what can and cannot be considered “fantasy,” we steered toward high fantasy similar to “Warcraft,” so any film had to involve some kind of magical creature, wizardry, folklore, fantastical worlds and so forth to be considered. Sci-fi crossbreeds and magical realism —as seen in, say, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” or “Life Of Pi”— didn’t quite qualify. Nor did more traditional fairytales/Disney princess movies like “Cinderella,” “Tangled” or “Frozen,” or any kind of man-gets-magical-powers movie like “The Cobbler” (which also didn’t qualify… because it’s “The Cobbler”).
So, with all that in mind, step through the wardrobe with us and journey to a land full of will’o’wisps, centaurs, giants, fairies, monsters, trolls, dragons and even the occasional human. Take a look below and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
20. “MirrorMask” (2005)
There are directors who have made their name in the genre, but fantasy more than most is indebted to a literary tradition (Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, etc). And so, aside from JK Rowling, the modern-day author that dominates the genre is Neil Gaiman. The best-selling fantasy writer collaborated on this film’s story with director Dave McKean and wrote the screenplay, and if the film is too uneven to really be considered a pantheon all-timer, it is only because it is bristling with too many ideas, not all of which are developed (and many of which would return in more convincing, pared-back form in “Coraline” —see below). However, the story of a little girl who, in a trademark Gaiman inversion, wants to run away from the circus, gets trapped in a fantasy realm, is mistaken for a princess and must save the City of Light from the encroaching Shadows, is still chock full of incidental pleasures and inventive flourishes. Best of all, like all great fantasy, there is an undercurrent of real-world pathos, as the events that transpire in the magical otherworld have roots and parallels in very real-world issues and tribulations: Gaiman’s real gift is in showing the imagination as both a retreat from and potential cure for the ills of the everyday world.
19. “300” (2006)
Action, albeit slo-mo and speed-ramped, clashes with macho melodrama in Zack Snyder’s feature film version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, which itself adapts the historical story of the battle of Thermopylae at which a small Spartan force held off hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the Persian army. Though based in fact, this story would be unrecognizable to anyone present for the real Persian Wars. The film is more “Clash of the Titans” than military history, as Snyder and his team pepper the action with wildly exaggerated characterizations and even a few human/creature hybrids. The fantasy of “300” operates on a meta-level, as Snyder’s adventurous filmmaking, which used heavy digital effects and extensive post-production manipulation of light and color, suggested to studios that entire new worlds were within the reach of a cadre of digital artists. Snyder’s subsequent career might not have worked out exactly as “300” promised, but this one effort set a tone which still echoes through action films a decade later.
18. “The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec” (2010)
“Jurassic Park” meets “Tomb Raider” in this refreshingly playful and oddly feel-good fantastical tale of Adele Blanc-Sec (portrayed with an insta-charming flair and impassioned zest by Louise Bourgoin). She’s a feisty archeologist and one helluva courageous dinosaur-tamer, but above all else, Adele is a determined, loving sister. And by the time the film’s central conceit —our heroine’s search for a cure that will release her twin sister Agathe (Laure de Clermont) from a paralytic state— is revealed, we have already been wowed by a flying pterodactyl hatched via the machinations of an elderly telepath in Paris circa the 1910s. While he’s known for embracing action and sci-fi, the prospect of Luc Besson delving into high-fantasy waters is a whole new ballgame (and it’s great how he consistently highlights powerful female leads). The result is a liberating, humorous, touching and, thanks in no small part to an unforgettably unrecognizable scene-stealing Mathieu Amalric, engrossing picture. Taking its story from a series of French comics by Jacques Tardi, the film’s transition from dinos to resurrected mummies is a little jagged, but its spirit — continuously revitalized by Bourgoin— sees through what is ultimately a small marvel of 21st century fantasy.
17. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005)
The first adaptation of the best-known of C.S. Lewis’ cherished “Chronicles of Narnia” children’s books from the ’50s may have fared better on the big screen had it been handled by a director who had slightly darker proclivities than Andrew “Shrek” Adamson. But where the religious allegory of the books, especially the first of the series, parallels the historical ones of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Christian symbolism is definitely harder to pull off as a live-action adaptation. But even though the franchise hasn’t blossomed to its full thematic potential, the first book has such a strong story that it’s hard not to feel transported anyway. Four children discover a magical wardrobe that leads them to the world of Narnia, where they must help the lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) take back the land from the control of an evil witch (MVP Tilda Swinton, making the most out of an opportunity for fairytale evilness). “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” does something neither sequels could follow-up: balance Oscar-winning makeup and eye-watering visuals with an appropriately emotional and intellectual story that may not have the depth of its source material, but still builds Lewis’ mythical world full of spritely creatures in wondrous style.
16. “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
It’s not news that Johnny Depp has been lost at sea for a while now, playing indistinguishable characters covered in layers of prosthetics, sporting grating voices and cartoonish affectations. But watching him in this swashbuckling blockbuster that untied the knot and made him drift away in the first place almost makes you think it was all worth it. He really is that good as the Keith Richards-esque Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” possibly the greatest theme-park-movie-adaptation ever (fine, not too much competition there). While its sequels (and Depp’s performance) are poor followups full of garish gimmicks and predictable schticks, none take away the wonder and jubilance from the original. Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush are all in fine form (even Bloom fits perfectly as the glazed passenger-side hero who wishes he was as cool as Jack), and the story of cursed skeletons and magical treasures is a refreshing collision of fantasy and 18th century marauding lifestyles. Ultimately, it’s all about Depp’s untethered, amusing performance as the half-drunk, half-mad Jack Sparrow, which we get just enough of here. Forget the sequels, forget Depp’s career nose-dive, get out your finest bottle of rum, and enjoy ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’ in all its fantastical, exhibitionist glory.