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Fantasy doesn’t always have to be about swords and sorcery. Indeed, some of the best fantasy films of the past two decades haven’t been all too fantastical in that sense—although, of course, there have been a good number of those types of films as well. Unfortunately, fantasy films that aren’t part of massive franchises (e.g. Harry Potter or Twilight) tend to get left behind by critics and viewers alike.
Here are several notable awesome fantasy films that you may have overlooked, and might want to watch the next time you have a chance. And by “fantasy,” I specifically mean movies that have a magical or supernatural element with no explanatory basis in science or technology, or movies that take us to an imagined setting.
1. About Time
A 21-year-old man learns that he’s inherited the ability to travel through time to the past, and uses this ability to improve his love life.
About Time is a comedic drama with spectacular performances by Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams. While time travel is a plot device most often seen in science fiction, About Time’s tone and approach give it all the otherworldly feeling you need to feel like you’re watching something special. Truly one of the best time travel movies of all time.
After vowing to retrieve a fallen star, a young man crosses over the Wall and enters the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where he finds the fallen star and learns that it is actually a woman.
I’ve always found this fantasy adventure film to share a lot in common with The Princess Bride, particularly in how well it blends the genres of fantasy, comedy, drama, and adventure together. With incredible performances all around, especially from Claire Danes and Charlie Cox, and a wonderfully uplifting ending that comes after a journey of many dramatic twists, Stardust seals itself as one of the greatest fantasy films of all times.
The historical adventure tale of Keda, a young man who lived 20,000 years ago, who’s left for dead by his hunter-gatherer tribe and fights for survival with the help of an injured wolf—the first ancestor of man’s best friend.
To be honest, Alpha’s story is pretty straightforward and simple. The story beats are rather predictable all along the way, but it’s only a minor detraction from what is otherwise an exciting film with remarkable visuals. Of course, no one really knows the story of how dogs came from wolves—which is why this film falls flat in “fantasy” territory—but this telling is plausible to a degree, and surprisingly heartfelt by the end.
4. Reign of Fire
In the near future, dragons are awakened and released in London. They wreak havoc on the world and drive humans to the brink of extinction. Now it’s up to the remnants of humanity to fight back and reclaim their world from the beasts.
Reign of Fire stars Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, and Gerard Butler. That alone is reason enough to watch this flawed but entertaining movie—and if that isn’t reason enough, just believe me when I say that it has some of the best dragon and dragonfire CGI, especially for a film that came out in 2002.
5. Kubo and the Two Strings
A twelve-year-old boy with only one eye and mastery in playing the shamisen is driven from his village by vengeful spirits of his deceased mother’s sisters and the Moon King.
From the makers of Coraline comes this beautiful tale that’s dripping with theme, atmosphere, and heart. And like Coraline, not only is the stop-motion animation is out of this world, but there are darker elements that brew under the surface, making this an excellently fun watch for both kids and adults. The fantastical elements on display truly kick this film up a notch from being “yet another animated flick.”
6. Kung Fu Hustle
An awkward thief is caught up in a brewing war between the gangsters of the The Axe Gang and the locals of Pig Sty Alley, who prove impossible to defeat with their array of extraordinary abilities.
What do you get when you combine magic, martial arts, and the Looney Tunes? That’s about as succinct a one-line description of Kung Fu Hustle as you’ll ever get. It sounds ridiculous—and it is ridiculous—but it’s executed so well that you can’t help but be impressed. There’s plenty of action, but lots of heart too, not to mention that Kung Fu Hustle is plainly one of the funniest martial arts comedy films of all time.
7. Ghost Town
When a socially difficult man nearly dies after going under anesthesia, he wakes up to discover that he can see and talk to ghosts, who pester him for his aid in completing their unfinished business.
I’m not really a fan of Ricky Gervais or his comedic work, but Ghost Town is something else. It isn’t dragged down by his annoying politics, and is free to be its own film with its own take on an admittedly tired premise. Sure, it doesn’t say much new or tackle the subject in a clever way, but it’s one of the better “I can see ghosts” films out there.