Magic has always held an intriguing role in both fiction and real life. Stemming from legends of wizards and mystics, the concept of magic began to grow in the view of humanity, encompassing all unexplainable powers and stories. From medieval folklore to modern wizarding novels, magicians have been at the heart of the fantasy genre for as long as it has existed.
These magicians are somewhat like the superheroes in popular culture today, having greater powers than most humans making them very appealing for audiences. The difference, however, is that the magic in these stories cannot be explained scientifically, nor does anybody even try to, creating an air of mystery around the tale rather than just science fiction.
Naturally, since magic has been so ingrained in popular culture, it has manifested itself into real life as well. Stage magicians and illusionists has been performing and wowing audiences for centuries in imitation of the real magic of legend.
For a large portion of time, before the public had become so dependent of scientific fact, stage magicians would entertain huge arenas full of people, even nobility, with their daring and breathtaking feats. While today they are significantly less popular, probably because most people do not believe in magic anymore, their carefully rehearsed stunts still leave the audience in awe and wonderment.
This list combines both the fantastical films of skilled wizards and folklore with the more realistic stories of illusionists on stage, as well as a couple of intriguing mixtures of both sides. By composing the list with films of both fact and fiction, the lines between trick and actual magic become less definite, showing the influence of fantasy on reality and vice versa.
15. Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)
Based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, a compilation of French and English stories from the Middle Ages, this film tells the story of the legendary King Arthur, his knights of the round table and his trusted wizard Merlin. Tracing his journey from when he pulled the sword from the stone and through his military victories the film captures Arthur’s success and righteousness. His romantic struggles are also focused on, notably the love triangle between him, Lancelot and Guinevere.
Magic of course also plays a large part in the events, shown in the clash between Merlin and Morgana le Fay who use various enchantments and curses throughout the story for their own benefits.
Morgana, played by a alluring Helen Mirren, tries to use her magic to overthrow her half-brother Arthur, implementing various methods including shapeshifting in order to seduce him. Much of the other magic, such as the sword Excalibur and Merlin’s relationship with the land, is a much more ancient idea of sorcery.
This type of is treated less supernatural and more like the remnants of a lost or obscure civilization. Filmed with gorgeous visuals and featuring an epic score, Excalibur is the greatest film retelling of the legendary story.
14. Houdini (George Marshall, 1953)
Tony Curtis stars as Harry Houdini, the most famous magician who ever lived, in this classic Hollywood biopic. The plot starts at Houdini’s origins as a circus performer where he meets his wife Bess, played by Janet Leigh. When they get married, Houdini leaves the circus to find a steady job at a safe factory where his obsession with dangerous escapes only grew.
Soon the couple took their show on the road, over to London where Houdini broke out of Scotland Yard and to Detroit where he escaped from a safe in the freezing river. Despite all of Bess’s pleas, however, Houdini’s adrenaline chasing led to him performing more and more dangerous stunts, eventually leading to his demise.
Like many other biopics from the golden age of Hollywood, more emphasis was put on dramatization than actual fact, leading to many exaggerations and even blatant changes about Houdini’s life and death. The glaring is the change of Houdini’s death t being on stage, which while much more dramatic, is false. Nonetheless, the film does an admirable job in portraying the human side of the illusionist and escape artist, as well as explaining how he accomplished some of his great stunts.
13. Stardust (Matthew Vaughn, 2007)
Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, Stardust is one of the most underappreciated fantasy movies of the 21st century. The story centers around a young man Tristan Thorn who ventures outside of his village’s wall, into the magical world in order to fetch a fallen star for his crush who is obviously is just toying with him. When he reaches the star, which is personified by a beautiful young woman played by Claire Danes, he finds his journey back will be much more treacherous. Now, several parties are also in pursuit of the star including princes who need it to claim their kingdom and old witches who want it for youthful beauty.
Magic surrounds almost every aspect of the plot in this comical and thrilling adventure story. The film has a very well rounded story, filled with light hearted whimsy, such as Robert De Niro as a closeted famed pirate commanding a flying ship, as well as darker magic like voodoo witchcraft.
Among a great cast, Michelle Pfeiffer steals the show as the evil, double crossing witch who wishes to take the star’s heart to promote her own beauty. A fun and adventurous fantasy film, Stardust is an underrated modern classic of the genre that deserves to be more seen.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
The first of two Studio Ghibli films by Hayao Miyazaki on this list, this film adapts Diana Wynne Jones’s novel of the same name. The story follows a young girl named Sophie who’s life is changed when she meets a charming young wizard named Howl.
Unfortunately, Howl has captured more than just her eye and is being pursued by many others including dangerous witches. When she upsets one of these witches, however, Sophie is transformed into an old lady and must go on an adventure to restore her youth.
One of Miyazaki’s most profitable and celebrated films, Howl’s Moving Castle is a hugely imaginative fantasy film, packed with adventure, romance and magic. The mixing of British folklore of the book with the Japanese style and production results in an interesting clashing of radically different cultures,. The magic in the film produced by the witches and wizards is likewise not based on a single idea of the concept, but a multi-faceted interpretation.
11. The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006)
A twisty period piece that debut around the same time as the similarly themed film The Prestige, approaches the subject with an intriguing manner. Edward Norton takes the central role as Eisenheim the Illusionist whose act is highly successful in Vienna, but he becomes banned when he insults the Crown Prince. T
he prince is also betrothed to Eisenheim’s lover Sophie, played by Jessica Biel, and when she plans to leave the prince he kills her in an act of rage. Furious, Eisenheim then constructs a new trick where he brings Sophie back from the dead, much to the dismay of the prince and public decency.
The focus on necromancy runs the film on the darker side of this list, but the darkness only makes the magic more mysterious. The seemingly legitimate magic that Eisenheim performs creates an uncertainty about the fictionality of the plot keeping the audience wondering if there is actual magic afoot or just more illusions.
The film features a great cast including Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti as well as those previously mentioned, and the technical aspects of the film, particularly set design, are similarly well done. The Illusionist is a unique magical thriller that, like any good magic trick, will keep you wondering.
10. Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986)
This cult classic stars Kurt Russell as truck driver Jack Burton who helps his friend Wang Chi rescue his fiance who has been kidnapped by the underground sex trade workers in Chinatown. Jack is swept up into a mysterious and dangerous battle against a powerful gang led by the ancient Chinese wizard Lo Pan who possesses enormous power, and has similarly magical henchmen. Along the way, Jack also starts to fall in love with a beautiful girl Gracie, whose friend has also been kidnapped by the gang.
Although Big Trouble in Little China is certainly the most campy and ridiculous depiction of magic on this list, it is also one of the most fun. Russell shines as the fun loving badass, a character he specializes in, and James Hong is equally excellent as the old wizard Lo Pan, portraying him both menacing and wise.
Carpenter recreated some of the over-the-top atmosphere from his previous hit starring Kurt Russell, Escape from New York, but instead of technology focused on traditional Chinese magic and culture, fulfilling his wish to make a martial arts film.
9. The Witches (Nicolas Roeg, 1990)
English auteur Nicolas Roeg teams up with Jim Henson’s company to adapt this classic novel by writer Roald Dahl. This comical, twisted children’s story follows a young boy Luke, who goes to live with his grandmother Helga after his parents die in a car crash. Helga tells Luke about the witches of England, who masquerade as old ladies, wearing wigs and gloves to hide their disturbing features as they try and kidnap young children.
When they are staying at an oceanside resort, Luke stumbles upon a secret meeting of England’s witches where they discuss a new method of eliminating kids, forcing Luke to try and stop them for the sake of the world’s children.
While already an incredibly dark tale for children’s standards, Roeg holds no punches in his depiction of the witches and their grotesque appearance. Angelica Huston steals the show as the delightfully wicked and unflinchingly evil Grand HIgh WItch who will stop at nothing to rid the world of children.
The magic that the witches use is also quite horrifying, including turning children into mice. Despite the heavy dark tones, the film is generally a adventurous children’s story, and although some might find it a bit scary, The Witches is a family film classic.