We've all seen films that take place in fantasy worlds or magical realities that are so captivating that we wish we could visit them. We're talking about places that exist alongside the real world, accessible via portals or some other magical means of travel.
Mystical creatures, enchanting spells, and wild adventures are there to provide us with an escape from our tedious reality. But sometimes those alternate worlds aren't all they're cracked up to be—even if they are well-made and fully realized.
Here are our picks for the best fantasy worlds and magical realms that exist alongside the real world in movies. You won't see places like Middle-Earth or Azeroth featured on this list!
12. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Wolfgang Petersen's first English-language film is based on the 1979 novel The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. Of course, it isn't literally never-ending—it's just a metaphorical way of explaining how multi-layered storytelling can be.
The basic premise follows ten-year-old Bastian (played by Barret Oliver), who finds sanctuary in a library when bullies start chasing him. He discovers a strange book that comes with a warning... and, upon reading, finds himself transported into Fantasia.
Logically, the film has a beginning, middle, and an end as Bastian tries to stop a malevolent force called "The Nothing" from devouring Fantasia. But from a three-dimensional perspective, there's the story world in the book, the story of Bastian reading it, and us watching it.
11. Big Fish (2003)
Tim Burton is known for his distinctive fantasy worlds, usually in the form of gothic animation. Big Fish, however, is slightly different from the director's typical style.
Not only is it a live-action movie with bright popping colors (rather than the dreary palette that tends to color his films), it also stars Ewan McGregor instead of Johnny Depp.
Despite the central plot of the film being based around a man on his deathbed, Big Fish is a delightfully uplifting comedy-drama. Burton uses the quest motif to explore the complexities of father-son relationships, specifically between Edward Bloom and his son, Will.
Played by Billy Crudup, Will is the only person who isn't charmed by his father's grand adventures. Frustrated by Edward's inability to distinguish fact from fiction, he only listens to his father's fantasy-infused life story when he's dying of cancer.
10. Stardust (2007)
Stardust is marketed like other serious fantasy dramas, set in a magical medieval world not unlike Middle-Earth. In reality, Stardust is a comedy that satirizes the fantasy genre.
The gravity, sacrifice, and doom of The Lord of the Rings is replaced with dry sarcasm, dumb protagonists, and Ricky Gervais.
The whimsical kingdom of Stormhold lies beyond the other side of the Wall in a rural English village, which Tristan (played by Charlie Cox) stumbles upon after seeing a star fall from the sky—and that star ends up taking human form (personified by Claire Danes).
Beyond the Wall are witches, time-traveling candles, and Robert DeNiro as a cross-dressing captain of a flying ship.
Director Matthew Vaughn adapted the film from Neil Gaiman's 1999 book. The actions of Stardust's ensemble cast—which includes big names like Sienna Miller, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Peter O'Toole, and Michelle Pfeiffer—are narrated by Sir Ian McKellen.
9. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Midnight in Paris is a little different from other films on this list in that its magical realm comes from the protagonist's ability to travel back in time rather than cast any spells or walk through portals.
Director Woody Allen once again expresses his love for nostalgia and wandering about city streets in this time-traveling romance drama, which Owen Wilson suffuses with hints of comedy.
Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is a hopeless romantic who's disillusioned by the hollow Hollywood lifestyle and dreams of writing a novel in Paris. Luckily for him, his longing to live in the "Lost Generation" is granted when he inadvertently steps back into the 1920s.
Every night, on a certain Parisian street corner, Gil meets with his idols: Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald, the whole lot. The jazzy music, revolutionary art, and bubbling social life of the era consume him as he falls for the beautiful Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard).
8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
There's no portal or magical transporting candle here. It's a tornado that sweeps Dorothy away to another land full of talking scarecrows, Munchkins, and wicked witches—and she spends the rest of the movie trying to get back home.
On the yellow brick road to the Emerald City, she finds that the façade of the mysterious and intimidating wizard hides an old and helpless man.
The Wizard of Oz is infamous for many reasons. Firstly, it was a milestone of early cinema and one of the first (successful) films shot in Technicolor. Secondly, it became a festive family classic that repeatedly aired over the Christmas period for decades.
Lastly, production was infamously hellish with five directors, brutal 16-hour shifts, set fires, and an overall traumatizing experience for young Judy Garland. One of the worst in cinema history.
7. Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland is an obvious example for this list. Whether you're reading the classic 1865 book by Lewis Carroll, watching the Disney animation, or Tim Burton's live-action version, you're in for a trippy journey down the rabbit hole.
Tim Burton has a knack for weird and wonderful worlds. His rendition of Alice in Wonderland keeps more in line with his darkly fantastical trademarks, where animals talk and everyone is unnaturally pale.
This works well for a tale like Alice in Wonderland, as Burton is able to tap into the feeling of being lost and alone in a strange place.
Mia Wasikowska leads the film as 19-year-old Alice, who narrowly avoids an unwanted marriage by tumbling into Underland. A rabbit with a pocket watch, stoned caterpillars, and Helena Bonham Carter's big-headed Queen of Hearts make it an escape that comes with a price.
6. Peter Pan (2003)
You have three options to choose from when it comes to Peter Pan: the 1902 book by J.M. Barrie (which he subsequently made into a play), the Disney cartoon, or the live-action movie remake.
There's also Steven Spielberg's spin-off Hook, starring Robin Williams as the "Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" grown up.
Peter Pan is about a young boy who flies between this world and Neverland. Appearing at the window of a central London townhouse, Peter transports the Darling kids to the new land where they meet the Lost Boys, uptight fairies, and the evil Captain Hook.
There's quite a few fan theories surrounding Peter Pan, like how Captain Hook isn't really a bad guy and is instead trying to save children from being kidnapped by Peter. Or that Neverland is the afterlife itself...
5. Labyrinth (1986)
Labyrinth has one of those strange alternate worlds that resembles a nightmare rather than a dream. It stars glam-rock artist David Bowie, and that alone speaks volumes of Labyrinth's offbeat style.
Labyrinth follows 16-year-old Sarah Williams (played by Jennifer Connelly) who must work her way out of a fictional maze to retrieve her baby brother from the Goblin King (played by David Bowie).
The maze springs from a book Sarah is reading back home, which physically manifests itself after she recites a dangerous spell.
Despite its box office failure, Labyrinth has since garnered a huge cult following. Tokyopop even published a four-volume comic sequel between 2006 and 2010, which could come to the big screen one day.
4. Coraline (2009)
You'd be forgiven for thinking Coraline was made by Tim Burton, but it was actually Henry Selick behind the movie. He merely adopted a similar aesthetic of gothic stop-motion animation.
Feeling ignored by her workaholic parents, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) wanders aimlessly around her new Pink Palace apartment in rainy Oregon. A black cat serves as an omen for evil forces afoot—ones she doesn't realize until it's too late.
After crawling through a hidden doorway into a parallel universe, Coraline is chuffed to find her doppelgänger parents full of love and attention—enough to ignore that her "Other Mother" has creepy buttons for eyes.
After luring Coraline in with banquets, songs, and her own personalized garden, her Other Mother suggests that Coraline get button eyes too. When she refuses, everything starts to go wrong.
3. The Chronicles of Narnia (2005–2010)
The first entry in this three-part film franchise is undoubtedly the best. Adapted from the children's book series by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe marks the Pevensie siblings' first introduction to the enchanting realm of Narnia.
After being evacuated from her home during WWII, Lucy (played by Georgie Henley) plays hide-and-seek in a huge oak wardrobe. There, she tumbles backwards into a snowy forest and meets the half-man, half-faun Mr. Tumnus (played by James McAvoy).
Later, her sister and two brothers eventually follow Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia, where the White Witch (played by Tilda Swinton) has cursed the land to an endless winter.
With the help of some talking beavers and the king of the jungle (the lion Aslan, voiced by Liam Neeson), the four siblings find themselves on a quest to restore summer to Narnia once more.
2. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Labyrinths aren't the most friendly of places. The winding maze structure forces characters on a difficult journey—often not just towards a physical goal, but also a mental/spiritual one.
Guillermo del Toro's Spanish war drama is the darkest movie featured on our list, as it uses the fantasy genre to explore the horrors or war, death, and trauma. Del Toro depicts an eerie underworld of ghoulish creatures where Princess Moanna's father awaits her return from Earth.
Ten-year-old Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) reads about this world in a book given to her by a faun, who has three tasks for her to complete. Back in the real world, Ophelia is abused by her step-father in Francoist Spain.
The obstacles in the stone labyrinth act as metaphors for the dangers of fascism and the Catholic Church, brought to life by Doug Jones.
1. Harry Potter (2001–2011)
Although the wizarding world of the Harry Potter films isn't really an "alternate" world, it's still a fantasy landscape that co-exists alongside our own reality—it's simply hidden from plain sight.
Non-magical "muggles" remain unaware of the witches and wizards who live among them, and to perform spells in front of them is considered a crime at the Ministry of Magic.
Harry Potter doesn't even know he's a wizard until his eleventh birthday, when a lovable half-giant kicks down his door with an invitation to Hogwarts. There, he befriends fellow students Ron and Hermione—and they spend eight movies taking down the evil Lord Voldemort.
J. K. Rowling's book series took the world by storm back in the 90s, and four different directors—Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates—succeeded in bringing her fascinating world to life.
By combining the cozy familiarity of old-school British culture with the extravagance of the wizarding world, Harry Potter manages to make every viewer feel at home.