Why is the Harry Potter franchise so universally loved? It goes beyond the glitz and glam of magic and flying cars. For all its mythological creatures and unicorn carriages, there’s something deeply real about J. K. Rowling’s universe.
It’s the familiar 90s London setting, cobblestone streets, and distinctly British architecture (modeled after Oxford University and various cathedrals) that ground the movies in reality—and that grounding in reality is what makes the magic more magical.
While Harry Potter is out-and-out fantasy, there are many other movies that are just as fantastical, whimsical, and wondrous without explicitly bringing “magic” into the picture. They’re called magical realism movies, and their blending of reality with fantasy is wonderful.
Here are the best magical realism movies ever made that are worth checking out if this sounds like your type of thing!
10. A Monster Calls (2016)
Based on the 2011 low-fantasy novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls drops an ancient tree creature into present-day England. (What does “low fantasy” mean for novels?)
Grappling with the grief and pain of his terminally ill mother, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis MacDougall) is plagued by nightmares. One night, the gnarled yew tree outside his window is brought to life, telling Conor he has three stories for him.
Liam Neeson voices the scary-but-friendly anthropomorphic tree, who guides Conor onto a better path than he was headed. He’s huge and wildly, yet extremely kind.
J. A. Bayona’s dark fantasy uses ancient mythology to incite useful wisdom in the modern day world. “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything, if they carry the truth.”
9. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)
This isn’t your average comic book movie… in fact, it’s easily one of the best ones. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World bends the rules of reality to give us hilarious and clever fun. We couldn’t imagine anyone but Michael Cera playing Scott—an awkward, eccentric nerd who plays bass for his unsuccessful indie garage band.
This might be an action movie, but it’s not exactly true-to-real-life. When trying to defeat the Seven Evil Exes of his new love interest Ramona Flowers (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Scott looses and gains lives as if he were in a video game.
The Power of Self Respect Sword and super-powered vegans are just a few of the funny elements that give the movie an imaginative spin, which is otherwise set in everyday Toronto.
It’s not just the writing of Edgar Wright’s comedy that defies all notion of realism, but also the editing and cinematography. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is crafted together like a live-action comic—not in the way Marvel does, but literally like a comic book. Blam! Kpow!
8. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton is known for his Gothic fantasy dreamscapes. Some of these are entirely fictional—like the worlds of Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas—but many are actually anchored in present-day Earth.
We had to choose carefully, otherwise this list could’ve ended up entirely dedicated to Burton! Yet as much as we love Beetlejuice, we picked a movie with a slightly more suburban setting.
Edward Scissorhands is a haunting classic with a plot like no other. Johnny Depp stars as the pale outcast Edward, who has scissors for hands. His blank eyes and crazy black hair and blades for fingers make him a scary sight to behold, but deep down, Edward is a sweetheart who repays his neighbors by trimming their hedges (and hair).
Peg Boggs (played by Dianne Wiest) is a typical woman of 90s suburban America. She sells Avon from one white-picket-fence house to the next. The pastel-colored houses, evenly spread across freshly mowed lawns, are uncannily perfect.
Scarring the landscape is the Gothic mansion where Edward lives—Burton’s eerie fantasy trademark seeping into the landscape.
7. Pleasantville (1998)
David (played by Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (played by Reese Witherspoon) are your typical American teenagers who are attending a typical American high school. David’s favorite show, Pleasantville, depicts your typical 1950s nuclear family.
However, things take a strange turn when the two are transported—literally—into the black-and-white sitcom. Devoid of all color, Pleasantville is an idyllic but dull town. Social rules are strict, students keep to the rules, and everything runs on time.
The familiar 90s setting is swapped out for a more distant vision of the 50s. It’s still a reality that we know and understand—apart from the fact that they’re living inside a TV show without any color.
Gary Ross directs this original fantasy-comedy, where the brother and sister try to teach people what it truly is to live. Breaking the rules and making art might seem taboo at first, but when colors start to appear in their fake world, the sitcom starts to feel more like real-life.
6. Midnight in Paris (2011)
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Midnight in Paris is a lighthearted romance-comedy with a twist. Woody Allen directs Owen Wilson as the wannabe author Gil Pender who’s pining for a past he never experienced.
The nostalgic writer loves to walk around Paris in the rain, but his materialistic girlfriend isn’t so keen. One fateful midnight, Gil is whisked away to the past and meets all the famous artists of the 1920s: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dali, and more.
Gil has really transported back in time to meet his idols. He strolls between the bars and parties, living the romantic Parisian dream. Unfortunately, Gil always wakes up back in the present day, desperate for the clock to strike midnight once more.
Midnight in Paris is a charming and vibrant tale, letting viewers indulge in their sentimental imagination for a few blissful hours.
5. Labyrinth (1986)
David Bowie appeared in a handful of movies, but his most prominent was Labyrinth. This offbeat 80s classic matched the musician’s glam-rock image, where he stars as the Goblin King in tights and glitter.
Jennifer Connelly headlines alongside Bowie as 16-year-old Sarah Williams, who accidentally wishes away her baby brother when reciting the words of her book The Labyrinth. The novel comes to life, and she’s given 13 hours to solve the maze and rescue her brother.
The aesthetics of Labyrinth’s fantasy world is a key part of the movie, created by conceptual designer Brian Froud. Viewers are carried away from the setting (unspecified but reminiscent of New York) and plunged into the weird and wonderful world of Henson goblins.
As expected from the creator of The Muppets, director Jim Henson cast puppets for most of the film’s characters. The musical did poorly at the box office, but has since gathered quite a cult following.
4. The Shape of Water (2017)
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Guillermo del Toro has a distinct vision for his films—one that encompasses both the real and the imaginary. If you took away the giant amphibian man, The Shape of Water would seem very much like a normal Cold War drama.
Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner for a secret government lab, where scientists are eager to win the Space Race. The lab coats and government uniforms are familiar to us—the most unusual bit is the aforementioned humanoid amphibian.
Del Toro has a brilliant eye for color, using a range of green tones to create an mise-en-scene that marries the aquatic and scientific themes. Del Toro is known for his use of dark fantasy to explore real-world issues, like exploitation and the duties of humanity.
3. Black Swan (2010)
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Black Swan is a psychological horror that treads on the toes of fantasy. Natalie Portman delivers an exceptional performance in her grueling role as an overworked ballerina.
Despite how dainty and elegant it looks, ballet is known to be an incredibly difficult dance—both physically and mentally. Darren Aronofsky uses this to explore how the mind can crack in unpredictable ways, breaking down under immense pressure.
The mythology of the doppelgänger plays a pivotal role in Black Swan, where Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) finds herself literally turning into the black swan. As she strives for artistic perfection, Nina begins to hallucinate and spiral into madness.
Aronofsky blurs the lines between the literal and the psychological. This not only serves as a metaphor for how physically demanding ballet (or any form of art) is, but how we’re really our own worst enemies.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
It’s Guillermo del Toro again, and this time with the most famous film in his filmography: Pan’s Labyrinth. This legendary Spanish movie is highly regarded by critics, featuring a whole host of bizarre—and sometimes horrifying—creatures.
Eleven-year-old Ophelia (played by Ivana Baquero) is led into the mythical world of Pan’s Labyrinth after stumbling upon an ancient stone opening. Sort of like a dark version of Narnia, Ophelia must navigate this secret world using the book given to her by a faun.
Undercutting the fairy tale themes of princesses, fairies, and immortality are themes of murder and war. The Spanish Civil War is the backdrop, where Ophelia’s step-father is an abusive Falangist Captain, that fastens the fantasy world to the appallingly real world.
Ophelia’s reality is actually more frightening than the beasts of the labyrinth—even the nightmarish Pale Man. Del Toro uses fantasy as an escape route for Ophelia, as well as a timely message for viewers.
1. Big Fish (2003)
Father-son relationships are a popular topic in film, but Tim Burton explores it in a uniquely creative way here.
Big Fish follows a young Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) through the exaggerated life story he’s always loved telling people. Witches, giants, and the Calloway Circus apparently litter his past, but his son Will (played by Billy Crudup) becomes frustrated with the lies.
Big Fish is a story about stories, and how all the best stories are dramatized versions of the truth. Though still harboring elements of the Gothic, Big Fish is distinctly less dark and cobwebby than most of Burton’s other films.
It’s sure to put a smile on your face, recounting the past through fairy tale vignettes that Will refuses to believe are true. What Will comes to learn, though, is that truth and fact aren’t always the same thing.