Not every fantasy movie can be as epic and grand as The Lord of the Rings. However, I think that is perfectly fine as some films are not meant to be.
There are some fantasy films out there that may not have done well and were not appreciated when they were released. Some were box office bombs or panned by critics or both while others have been lost as the years have worn on. These are some underrated fantasy movies that I like to think will become classics or possibly even larger cult classics one day.
11 Underrated Fantasy Films
The story begins with King Einon being wounded in a battle. In order for him to survive, he is healed by a dragon. Some years later, Bowen, a dragon slayer, encounters this dragon that is the last of his kind. Bowen names him Draco and they team up to perform a scam. Bowen “slays” Draco, the fierce dragon who had been “terrorizing” them, and then collects a reward from the village. From there, Bowen and Draco must save the entire kingdom from the rule of the now ruthless King Einon.
The best thing about this film by far is Draco. He is such a likable character (and much nicer than many of the humans in this story), and one can sympathize with him. He is also quite philosophical and honorable. Some of the best quotes in the film come from him. He can be fierce when the time calls for it but he still has a very kind heart. Plus…it is Sean Connery as the voice of Draco…007…how can you go wrong with that? The main human character Bowen is also enjoyable. He is a character who had lost faith in “the old code” while also watching his deteriorating relationship with the young King Einon. It is almost tragic because the audience can see how much he cared for Einon.
Draco’s friendship with Bowen is another thing to enjoy about this movie, with an equal amount of hilarious banter and poignant moments. Some aspects of the film, especially the ending, involves deep metaphysical details, is heavy in symbolism, cosmology, and poetic justice. Dragonheart has a sense of lighthearted joy, cheer, and mellow that allow for fun and escapism.
#10: The Dark Crystal
After the success of the Muppets, Jim Henson decided to take his puppetry in a much different and darker direction. A Gelfling named Jen, taken in by the kind wizards known as Mystics, is given the task of repairing the powerful Dark Crystal before the three sons of their planet align. If he fails in his task then the malevolent Skeksis will rule their planet forever.
There are many things to admire about this movie with its elaborate sets, groundbreaking puppetry, creative creatures and detailed languages. One could make the argument that its world building can rival that of Tolkien. Though the film has its problems, such as over use of a narrator spouting exposition, the world that the audience sees through the visuals is stunning. The character designs are also impressive with the great fantasy illustrator Brian Froud creating much of the concept art and creature and costume design. I am happy to know that the film has earned a cult following but I still think it a film more people should see.
#9: The Last Unicorn
Based on the book by the same name by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay, and animated by Rankin/Bass and Top Craft, the predecessor of Studio Ghibli, this movie is charming with plenty of nightmare fuel. When a solitary unicorn finds out she may be the last of her kind, she sets out on a journey to find other unicorns, with the Red Bull as her only clue and makes friends along the way. Through her adventure, she gets turned into a human woman and must deal with all the emotions and conflicts that come with that, including an unreliable memory.
The characters are enjoyable to watch and charming, from the bumbling magician Schmendrick, to the cynical Molly to the wise and innocent unicorn. The voice cast for these characters is chalk full of talent with actors like Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow and Christopher Lee. The animation and character designs are gorgeous with a painterly style and serene backgrounds.
The soundtrack of the film was composed and written by Jimmy Webb and performed by America. The songs are not pointless as they help tell the story and even capture the mood of characters and various scenes. The lyrics are poetic with multiple layers of meaning that can be interpreted. The story is has a genuine sweetness and mystery to it with many unexpectedly touching and memorable moments. It is a film that may not appeal to everyone but one that certainly deserves another look.
#8: The Witches
Based on Roald Dahl’s classic story, this movie takes fairy tales back to their dark and frightening roots. While staying with his grandmother, a young boy discovers a covenant of witches who want to destroy all of the children in England. The poor boy also gets turned into a mouse, which I am sure is a scene that stuck with many children who saw this film in theaters.
Anjelica Huston gives a great, chilling performance and Jim Henson’s visual effects give this film a distinct look and atmosphere. This is one movie that walks along the line of humor and horror. A few scenes can be downright terrifying but that is one of the reasons why it is such a memorable story.
#7: The Adventures of Baron Munchousen
This film is apparently based on the tall tales told by an 18th-century German nobleman named Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen during wartime against the Ottoman Empire. This is a madcap fantasy with the distinctive directing style of Terry Gilliam. It tells the story of a nobleman who travels across the universe to save a town from complete destruction. During his adventures he encounters deities, giant fish and an assortment of other colorful characters.
This is a wild adventure full of imagination and creativity. With the kind of surreal imagery only Terry Gilliam can provide, this movie proves to be as entertaining as any of his previous films such as Time Bandits and Brazil. One could argue that the adventures of this movie can live up to those of the Odyssey, and Gulliver’s Travels.
#6: Bednobs and Broomsticks
Set in World War II England, the story follows three orphans who end up in the care of Miss Price who is an apprentice witch and plans to use her magic to fight the Nazis. With the help of a con man and a flying bed, they travel across the world to find the right spell and an enchanted medallion.
This film is often overshadowed by Mary Poppins but it is still worthy of more attention with its live action characters and animated adventures. This film also has plenty of musical numbers for all those who enjoy musicals. That is all I a going to say because this is a movie that is better not knowing much about it and going along for the crazy, entertaining ride.
Despite the talent and leadership of George Lucas and Ron Howard, this film did not live up to its potential at the box office. It is a true shame because Willow is charming, funny and heartfelt without being full of schmaltz. It tells the story of a young, reluctant dwarf who wants to be a wizard and his discovery of an abandoned baby girl. Willow must keep the baby safe from an evil queen with the help of new friends he makes along the way.
The story may be simple and tell the hero’s journey, but we can clearly see the effort and talent of the filmmakers. The movie takes advantage of its simplicity through building its world, the fantasy inhabitants and fleshing out the characters. The chemistry between Warwick Davis, who plays Willow and Val Kilmer who plays the criminal Madmartigan is great and the film has some genuinely funny moments. Moreover, Willow’s journey of discovering his own self-worth feels earned rather then forced or given a pass due to lazy writing. Not to mention, it is possibly one of the most quotable movies I have ever seen. If one enjoys movies with a more playful and cheerful atmosphere and swashbuckling adventure, then I recommend giving it a chance.
#4: Strange Magic
Thanks to a love potion and a mischievous imp, Marianne, eldest princess of the Fairy Kingdom, must save her sister Dawn when she is kidnapped by the ruler of the Dark Forest named Bog King. He will only return the younger princess when he has the love potion so he may destroy it.
This film bombed at the box office so spectacularly that it set a new record. It is hated by many people and seems like George Lucas trying to do Disney. It is also a jukebox musical, which does not sit well with everyone. However, I think there are still aspects of this movie to admire. Some of these include creative character designs, talented voice actors/singers, amusing and entertaining side characters, some self-deprecating humor, well-developed leads in Marianne and Bog, and important themes about love. The film shines with its themes and heart and I think its positives earn it another chance.
When the ruler of the underworld captures the last living unicorn, a beautiful and innocent princess and brave forest boy must rescue her from Hell and stop Satan from plunging the world in everlasting ice and darkness.
Directed by Ridley Scott, this visually stunning fairy tale is filled with good practical effects and some of the most amazing makeup work in the fantasy genre. Seriously, for the longest time, I never realized that the Satan character was played by Tim Curry until I was told so by a friend. He relishes every minute he is on screen and when he does appear, one does not see Tim Curry but rather the Lord of Darkness himself. The designs of the goblins are also pretty creative and appropriately dark, especially Blix. As stated before, this film is a visual wonder and has many beautiful scenes. For example, there is a scene with the goblins stalking the unicorn through a storm of rose petals. Unicorn deaths are also beautifully illustrated through the changing of environments, slowly changing from spring to winter as they lose their strength, magic and life.
Princess Lily is a character I personally enjoy, especially how she personifies the idea that Innocence is not always a positive thing. It can be dangerous and reckless, and people can be hurt as a result. In addition, the interactions between Lily and Satan were very entertaining. I have always had a weakness for something dark falling head over heels for something light and not knowing what to do with these new emotions. On her part, Lily was so disturbed and yet intrigued by him. Another scene that always stood out to me was when Lily dances with a beautiful black dress. It may have its problems but it is still a wonder to behold and holds up even to this day.
#2: The Black Cauldron
This fantasy action and adventure movie is about a young boy who must protect a psychic pig from the evil Horned King. If he gets his bony hands on the pig, then he will find The Black Cauldron and use its dark magic to raise an army of the dead and take over the world.
Disney is not a stranger to fantasy but with this movie they did something a little different. With its dark and gritty atmosphere along with some of the creepiest imagery one could find in a Disney movie, The Black Cauldron shocked critics and fans which resulted in it being a massive box office disaster. Disney’s response, of course, was to disown it and not release it on home video for nearly ten years. Despite all this, the film has garnered a cult following and continues to be discovered by people wanting a darker edge to their animated films. Though it has its problems, the film is still quite entertaining, even if Disney wants to act like it never existed.
#1: FairyTale: A True Story
This story is loosely based off the “true” events of two young girls in 1917 and their photography of themselves in the presence of fairies, known as Cottingley Fairies. Their pictures capture the interest of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a champion of spiritualism at this time in his life, who wants to determine the validity of their claims. He decides the photos are authentic and were used as proof of fairy existence. They also capture Harry Houdini’s interest, an outspoken debunker of all forms of spiritualism. It was not until many years later and the girls were old women in the 1980s, when they admitted the photos were fake. All except for one in which they disagree of its authenticity.
Aside from this movie being another childhood fantasy of mine (fairies & Doyle) told through the fun illusion that is film, it also has some nice star power with Peter O’Toole as Doyle, Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini as well as a few additional cameos made by other stars. The film blurs the line between fantasy and reality and the audience is never quite sure if the fairies are real or not. Furthering to blur this line, there are scenes that suggest the fairies are real while there are others that paint the girls as deceivers. Near the beginning of the film the audience are witness to a performance of Peter Pan and this scene sets up the tone of the film nicely.
The film is about the eternal clash between reason and faith and enchantment. The main characters 12-year-old Elsie Wright and 8-year-old Frances Griffiths are likable and they kept me engaged in their story until the end. One could argue that in the movie, and in real life, the wonder and escapism of this experience allowed the girls to cope, heal and experience joy in a time of their lives interwoven with anguish, loss, and death. If it sounds like a film you would be interested in, find a copy and see for yourself.
Those are the 11 most underrated fantasy films that I have seen. Thank you for reading. What are some fantasy movies you think of when you think underrated? Please let me know as I know there are so many more than just these. I would like to know.