The fantasy genre is always there to push the boundaries of our imagination. Fantasy films capture the mystical and the magical like in the Harry Potter series. They tell us the stories of myths and folklore like in many of the works of Guillermo del Toro. They introduce us to creatures that will haunt or nightmares like It, or that we’ll love to buy merch from like My Neighbor Totoro. And mostly; they let us explore entire imaginary worlds like the world of Lord of the Rings or Avatar.
As the last example proves; the genre can change the course of cinema, because obviously some of these new worlds need to be experienced in new ways so that we can fully emerge in them. This is also why animation is such a great medium to tell fantasy stories on, because the possibilities are endless.
The examples above are obviously all well-known already, but lots of great fantasy films don’t have this privilege. Without further ado, presenting 10 of them, in this list of 10 great fantasy films no one talks about.
1. Faust (1994)
Jan Svankmajer’s Faust is a very loose adaptation of the Doctor Faustus legend that mainly takes inspiration of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust. The legend of a man selling his soul to the devil is seen in many different interpretations, but Svankmajer’s Faust might as well be the most unique one. This mostly thanks to Svankmajer his distinct personal style; combining live-action, stop-motion, claymation, and puppetry. In Svankmajer’s adaptation the character Faust follows a treasure map that lures him into a lurid puppet theatre. Here he finds himself a performer of the play.
No list about fantasy films is complete with at least one of the works of Svankmajer. Besides making some incredible films like Alice, Little Otik, Food, and Conspirators of Pleasure, he has a great career in fine arts as well. The artist and filmmaker has a legacy that inspired some of the most unique voices working in the film industry today. From Terry Gilliam to the Quay brothers, and from Tim Burton to Edgar Wright. Diving into Svankmajer’s filmography is a nice way to see where some of these established names got their inspiration from.
2. Black Orpheus (1959)
It’s Carnival week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Guitarist Orfeo and his fiancé Mira are preparing for the grand festival and together with friend Sarafina they put the last touches on their costumes. Life for Orfeo changes when Sarafina’s cousin, Eurydice, comes to Rio to flee her village and the mysterious reincarnation of Death that’s trying to hunt her. Orfeo and Eurydice fall in love at first sight, since it’s meant to be, but Mira quickly becomes suspicious and is filled with jealousy. Not only is Eurydice in danger of being caught by an enraged Mira, but also by Death whom has followed her to Rio.
Black Orpheus is French director Marcel Camus his retelling of the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which itself is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The film is set in Morro da Babilônia, a favela in Rio and is most famous for its music by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá which introduced the world to Bossa Nova. Although big names like Bong Joon-ho have cited the film as a big influence, it’s reach as a classic hasn’t quite hit a bigger audience, even though it definitely deserves one.
3. Blancanieves (2012)
On the day Carmen is born, her father Antonio, a famous Spanish Matador, has a work-related accident landing him in the hospital and not long after, her mother dies while giving birth to her. Antonio soon remarries the nurse that treated him, the evil Encarna, and Carmen is mostly left being raised by her grandmother. Later in life Carmen is treated like a slave to Encarna, who’s evil deeds are taking a toll on her. After things go too far and Encarna wants to kill Carmen, she decides to run away, ending up in the woods in the company of a band of bull-fighting dwarfs.
Sounds familiar? That’s because Blancanieves is a retelling of the fairy tale ‘Snowwhite.’ It’s a romanticized Spanish tale set in the 1920s in Seville, Spain. What makes it even more interesting is the style of the film, as it is a black-and-white silent film, meant as a love letter to the silent film era of Europe. It’s quite the shame that this little film was overshadowed by ‘The Artist’ that came out a year earlier, because this is arguably just as good if not better. Hopefully Blancanieves will find its wider audience still as it deserves much more buzz around it than it initially did.
4. Grass Labyrinth (1979)
Shūji Terayama is viewed as one of the most provocative artists that came out of Japan. He has influential creative works in countless of disciplines including literature, radio, tv, theater, and film. In film he’s best known for his surreal features: ‘Throw away your books, rally in the streets’ and ‘Pastoral.’ Besides these two incredible films he made a bunch more features and shorts; Grass Labyrinth being one of the latter, although with 40 minutes in length it’s not that short at all.
Grass Labyrinth follows a young man, Akira, that is determined to find the words to a song that his mother used to sing to him. As he’s now on the verge of adulthood, he’d like to close the chapter that is his childhood by finding the meaning of the song. On his search Akira goes into a time-warp that merges aspects from both his childhood and his adulthood, bringing him to an imaginary world, housing the labyrinth of time. With surrealist imagery and metaphor after metaphor, the film is an experience that pulls you in and doesn’t let you go even after it ends, since you’ll still be pondering over its meaning. It might be Terayama at his best, but with a body of work like his, it has some stiff competition that is all worth it to check out.
5. The Boxer’s Omen (1983)
When Zhen Wei, a Hong Kong boxer, gets injured when his Thai opponent plays dirty, his brother Zhen Xiong will avenge him. Meanwhile he also has to find a way to break the ancient curse that looms over their family name. He does this by traveling to Thailand, where he gets involved in black magic and Buddhism. On his journey he will encounter fantastical adventures involving wizards, monks, and all sorts of monsters, all out there to thwart his plans.
Kue Chih-Hung was one of the most popular directors working for the Shaw Brothers studios and his film ‘The Boxer’s Omen’ might be his best-known work. It might even be one of the best-known works coming from the Shaw Brother studios. But even so, there’s not much buzz around it, is there? Even though people definitely know about the film, it feels like its bonkers plot should be the subject of more film conversations. We probably should all take the time to get the buzz going by introducing the film to our friends and make a movie night out of it, since this film is best experienced together.