With new advancements in special effects and the success of Star Wars in particular, studios and filmmakers turned their attention as they headed into the 1980s towards a genre of storytelling that has been entertaining audiences since time immemorial: fantasy.
With special effects wizards who could now build life-sized dragons and artists who could make actors disappear beneath genuinely organic-looking makeup, the time was ripe for fantasy films to flood the market. Of course, not every fantasy film to come out of the ‘80s was the cinematic equivalent of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sometimes you got true excellence, and sometimes you got … well, this:
For purposes of defining fantasy, we’ll be looking at sword and sorcery, knights and princesses, dragons and ogres—that sort of thing. Which means no Flash Gordon or Krull (sorry, too outer spacey and laser blastery) and no Big Trouble in Little China either (sorry, too John Carpentery).
But that leaves plenty of ‘80s fantasy goodness to be had.
So go ahead and get comfortable, feel free to change into any animal of your choosing through some quick editing, and let’s dive into the top 10 live-action fantasy films of the 1980s.
10. Return to Oz (1985)
Every generation ought to have a film like Return to Oz in their childhoods—if only to prepare them for the horrors, uncertainties, and randomness of life ahead.
When this bizarre little sequel showed up 46 years after the fact, audiences understandably did not respond well to seeing beloved heroine Dorothy Gale sent to the madhouse for electroshock therapy and subsequently whisked away to a dystopian Oz where the Yellow Brick Road has been smashed up and the city ruins have been overrun by a gang of psychotically giggling thugs with wheels for hands and feet.
True, The Wizard of Oz had its share of darker moments too—death by falling house comes to mind, along with those pre-Evil Dead, apple-throwing trees—but was there anything in the 1939 musical even half as horrifying as Princess Mombi, who literally would swap out her head to wear those of the younger, more beautiful women she captured? Is there any movie that has anything quite so terrifying as the hall of heads scene???
It is impressive how many hours of sleep this film deprived me of in my childhood. Major respect, Return to Oz.
They definitely upped the absurdity factor here too by making the big baddie petrified not of water but of … um, chickens. Again, major respect. This film is simultaneously too weird to exist and too weird not to.
9. Willow (1988)
Half a decade before he’d be found ordering drive-thru in the Batmobile, a young Val Kilmer starred as dashing rogue Madmartigan in Ron Howard and George Lucas’s ambitious fantasy epic,Willow. Kilmer’s braided-haired antihero with a heart is one of the biggest reasons to watch Willow—it’s a film that sometimes staggers uncertainly under the ambition of all its animal transformations, skull-masked villains, leaping ape creatures, and double-headed dragons.
The other biggest reason to watch would be a very young Warwick Davis in a leading role free of all the heavy makeup and costumery that usually came attached with his more famous films (Return of the Jedi, the Leprechaun series). At just 18 years of age, Davis shined as the film’s protagonist, a simple farmer named Willow who’s determined to protect a baby that’s been marked for assassination.
Willow and Madmartigan make an unlikely pair, but their bickering and camaraderie are ultimately what give heart and meaning to all the special effects and castle-storming.
8. Clash of the Titans (1981)
Before CGI descended upon cinema like a blurry, partially rendered plague of locusts, makers of monster movies had one of two options: they could actually build themselves a friggin’ huge monster (à la Aliens or King Kong ’76) or they could get Ray Harryhausen to make you think you were looking at a friggin’ huge monster.
While Clash of the Titans would turn out to be Ray Harryhausen’s final film, there was no sign of him losing steam in any of the fantastical beasts he brought to ancient Greece. Trusty Pegasus, supersized scorpions, Medusa with her glowing eyes and big, rattling tail, the Kraken released in all his green-scaled glory, Bubo the mechanical owl beeping and blooping his adorable little way into our hearts like an airborne R2-D2—all of them the work of a maestro in full stride.
Aesthetically, Clash of the Titans differs little from Harryhausen’s Sinbad films of the ‘70s, which makes it probably the least ‘80s-feeling fantasy film of the decade. But it’s a technical achievement nevertheless and an exhilarating journey through Greek mythology (and at least Perseus seems to know what decade he’s in, rocking that headband and Hasselhoff hair like nobody’s business).
7. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Leave it to Jim Henson to make a film exclusively with muppets and have it turn out to be one of the darkest fantasy pictures of all time.
The idea of a contraption resembling an electric chair that drains your life essence turning you into a mindless slave with glazed-over eyes, all so some cackling rat-lizard can drink your liquified soul for purposes of rejuvenation, sounds pretty damn terrifying. It’s about a kabillion times worse when you’re watching it happen to some petrified, pint-sized schmoe who looks like he could be Gonzo’s kid cousin.
Indeed, the scheming Skeksis are as wicked as they come, and Jim Henson clearly did not give a second thought as to how many children’s nightmares he was going to invade in making this. Rather, he developed a lore of near Tolkien proportions for his first major fantasy feature and brought some astonishing humanity to characters capable of little more than blinking and curling their lips. How amazingly well it all works is a testament to Henson’s mastery of his craft and his heart for storytelling.
Kira and Jen, the last two Gelflings, handily capture the audience’s hearts, along with each other’s, and are easily the best fantasy couple of the decade. And they’re puppets. Go figure.
6. The Princess Bride (1987)
For anyone who hasn’t seen The Princess Bride, the film must sound like one big in-joke with how much fans enjoy producing memes and peppering conversations with all kinds of references to falling for classic blunders and words that do not mean what you think they mean (or meme what you think they meme, as the cool kids say).
But the film is about so much more than that. It’s about ROUSes too and M.L.T.s that are perky and lean. Far from just a big in-joke, it’s a film about wuv—twue wuv—and anyone can understand and relate to that whether they’ve seen The Princess Bride or not.
So while The Princess Bride will no doubt one day be a valuable Rosetta Stone that will allow future generations to understand half the memes in existence, it’s still very much worth experiencing for the first time today, if only so you too can partake of its superior and inconceivably cryptic lexicon.
5. Labyrinth (1986)
Following the release of The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson felt he had done an admirable job of messing up children’s sleep cycles but feared he may have missed a few spots. So he came up with the idea of a film where David Bowie would kidnap a baby and threaten to turn him into a goblin if Jennifer Connelly couldn’t solve an impossible, ever-changing maze within 12 hours. That film has gone on to become one of the biggest cult phenomenons of the ‘80s, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Between Bowie’s glittering pop-new-wave ballads, the sprawling cast of lovingly detailed goblins and trolls, and the rather stunning landscape shots of the labyrinth itself, the film sure makes an impression. But Labyrinth operates on deeper levels than the ridiculous lyrics of “Magic Dance” would have you believe. It’s essentially a coming-of-age tale that warns of self-absorption, how easily our possessions can become our burdens, and that stresses the importance of sifting through and finding one’s own way amidst the confusing chorus of voices in life.
It’s also a valuable lesson that you’d better “bug-away” any fairies inhabiting your garden before they bite you. Little mystical mosquitoes.
4. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
Conan the Barbarian is one of those rare films that can be enjoyed both ironically and unironically. In fact, it’s hard not to watch it both ways at the same time. The film takes Conan’s quest to hunt down his parents’ killer (played with cool menace and real gravitas by James Earl Jones) perfectly seriously but also takes time out for its titular hero to get buzzed on black lotus and punch out a camel.
As an action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a goofy yet undeniably compelling charm that’s reined in only when he’s playing emotionless, unsmiling machines. And that larger-than-life, movie star persona of Schwarzenegger’s massively ups the film’s entertainment value. Meanwhile, director John Milius and composer Basil Poledouris bring the epic scale that’s needed for this tale of blood and thunder.
As for the age-old riddle of what is best in life? Sitting down to a viewing of Conan the Barbarian must surely run a close second to crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you.
Still waiting for the musical to make its way to Broadway…
3. Excalibur (1981)
Just given Hollywood’s track record, it would seem Arthurian legend is a darned near impossible thing to get right on the silver screen. With soaring budgets, such talented directors as Antoine Fuqua and Guy Ritchie have tugged at that stone-embedded sword to no avail. There is one, however, who found a measure of success where others have not, and his name is John Boorman.
Upon assembling an all-star cast of thespians including Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Stewart, Boorman took to the Irish countryside and ambitiously folded great swathes of Arthurian legend into one sprawling narrative that would follow King Arthur from birth and boyhood to bitter end. Among the film’s many highlights is Arthur and company’s climactic charge toward battle while flowers bloom in sped-up time-lapse photography and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” thunders on the soundtrack. Eighties fantasy doesn’t get much more epic than that.
2. Legend (1985)
Ridley Scott is the master of “the film so nice, they made it twice.” We now have two versions of Alien, two versions of Kingdom of Heaven, a whole lotta versions of Blade Runner, and of course two versions of Ridley’s mid-80s foray into fantasy, Legend—the shorter US theatrical cut with a moody and ethereal electronic score by Tangerine Dream and the longer director’s cut with a dark and luscious orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith. You can’t go wrong whichever you choose as they are both excellent versions of the same fairy-tale masterpiece.
Legend may not be quite as deep, quite as meta, or quite as epic as some other films on this list, but it is quite possibly the most sumptuous-looking fantasy film of all time and there’s just something comforting about a fairy tale told well, however simple the idea behind it all. There’s little more to be found here than good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, and true love triumphs over all. Yet every shot is a kind of visual masterpiece, a painting that could be hung on a wall, and the music—whichever score you choose—complements it all marvelously.
A rather green Tom Cruise (both in terms of wardrobe and acting experience) fades into the foliage beside the zeal of Mia Sara, but the real star here anyways is of course Tim Curry, who delivers a deliciously malevolent performance through all that outstanding makeup. This might just be the only film on this list where you wouldn’t mind seeing the bad guy win for once.
1. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Wolfgang Peterson’s adaptation of Michael Ende’s The NeverEnding Story instantly captured hearts and imaginations when it brought to life the sight of a full-scale luck dragon soaring over Fantasia and blissfully graced eardrums with that inspiring Giorgio Moroder-penned theme song.
That said, for all its visual and aural splendor, the film’s greatest strength lies in the power of its messages. It’s a fascinating film to watch through adult eyes. When the wolflike servant of the Nothing declares he wishes for hope to die because people without hope are easy to control, it’s pure chills straight up and down the spine.
The NeverEnding Story is a tale about the process of storytelling too. The film asks whether stories are simply stories, bound to the pages of the books we find them in or the lengths of their running times, or whether they can become something much greater if only we allow them to by taking the ideas and lessons we encounter in them and carrying them into our own lives. Ultimately, it’s a film that implores us, that pleads with us, to dream and live those dreams.
For all its wonder, for the inspirational nature of its messages, and for the cleverness of its deeply meta storyline, The NeverEnding Story truly is one of the greatest fantasy films of the decade.
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