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The top 10 live-action fantasy movies from the ’80s

Written by: Mike Ettel

The top 10 live-action fantasy movies from the ’80s

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)

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