The fantasy genre is full of films which didn’t exactly strike a chord with audiences at first, but later became well-loved. This is a look at 10 more overlooked fantasy films which haven’t really become cult hits…yet.
Among all of the major genres in film, the fantasy genre is perhaps the one which has had the least amount of mainstream success. There have been exceptions (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, maybe Pirates of the Caribbean, even Shrek) but the genre has yet to have its Star Wars moment – a moment which changed the commercial potential of the genre to be more sustainable (for the purposes of this discussion, I am considering science fiction as separate from fantasy films).
Fantasy is still very much the weird genre – full of quaint characters, wild creatures, and strange settings. Most of the films take place in the past, but aren’t part of our own history, which makes them difficult to connect with. Contrast with science fiction, which often utilizes advanced technology to tell a cautionary tale, audiences are more willing to suspend their disbelief for something that hasn’t happened yet, but feels like it could. Fantasy requires a little bit more effort from the audience.
Because of this, there are a large number of fantasy films which have faded into obscurity. The lucky ones were rediscovered and have become loved for their creativity and charms. Others haven’t met the potential their creative clout deserves. This is a look at ten of these types of fantasy movies – movies which at the very least deserve a second look before we dismiss them back into dark abyss of obscurity.
The Plot: Darkness (Tim Curry) seeks to create eternal night by destroying the last of the unicorns. Jack (Tom Cruise) and his friends do everything possible to save the world and Princess Lili (Mia Sara) from the hands of Darkness. Enter a world of unicorns, magic swamps, dwarfs and rainbows.
The Stars: Director Ridley Scott, Tom Cruise, Tim Curry, Mia Sara
Why it Deserves Better: This film is the film Ridley Scott made after directing Aliens, and Blade Runner. Both of those films have come to be major players in the science fiction genre and are huge influences on modern cinema. Legend is just as impressive in terms of its visuals, set design, and music (the original Tangerine Dream soundtrack) as those aforementioned films, but hasn’t gotten the same attention.
Why it Remains Obscure: Until Blade Runner’s story became appreciated for being ahead of its time, Legend was written off (and is still being written off) by critics and audiences for the same reason – being a visually stunning, yet boring and shallow film. The film kind of feels like a generic fantasy story. And so today the script feels just as uninspired as it did back in 1985.
The Plot: To win the heart of his beloved (Sienna Miller), a young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox) ventures into the realm of fairies to retrieve a fallen star. What Tristan finds, however, is not a chunk of space rock, but a woman (Claire Danes) named Yvaine. Yvaine is in great danger, for the king’s sons need her powers to secure the throne, and an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to use her to achieve eternal youth and beauty.
The Stars: Director Matthew Vaughn, Robert DeNiro, Claire Daines, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfiffer, Sienna Miller
Why it Deserves Better: Vaughn showed us his creative genius in his Kingsmen movies, and this one is a precursor to that type of tongue-in-cheek zany entertainment. The film has a strong cast, a very imaginative story, and is a thrilling adventure – the latter two attributes are not seen enough these days. It is like a more serious version of The Princess Bride, finding fun inside the confines of our expectations for the genre.
Why it Remains Obscure: Because it is a fantasy movie. There’s no other explanation. The film is fun, charming, and creative. It has a great cast, an inspired direction. It’s just a weird movie. People who like Robert DeNiro’s best films aren’t necessarily the people who would want to see him in a fantasy movie. Cox wasn’t a big star yet, and the film was a lot different than the types of darkly serious movies which were in theaters that year.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
The Plot: Feeling misunderstood at home and at school, mischievous Max (Max Records) escapes to the land of the Wild Things, majestic — and sometimes fierce — creatures. They allow Max to become their leader, and he promises to create a kingdom where everyone will be happy. However, Max soon finds that being king is not easy and that, even being with the Wild Things, there is something missing.
The Stars: Director Spike Jonze, James Ganolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Forest Whitaker
Why it Deserves Better: Spike Jonze found a lot of success with his latest film, 2013’s Her, and his 1999 film, Being John Malkovich is also a fairly popular and very fun fantasy. But somehow, this film just doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as those other two, despite being incredibly well made and being based on a popular kids book. The production design and costumes in this film are simply amazing, and the script is heat-felt and inspirational.
Why it Remains Obscure: I think the biggest problem with the film is that it was based on a children’s book that deals with some pretty heavy emotions. As a result, the film isn’t exactly gleeful. That makes it a challenging movie for kids to watch, and the fact that it was based on a kids book may make some adults hesitant to consider it. As a result, the film’s intended audience isn’t well defined, which I think dilutes what it accomplishes.
The Witches (1990)
The Plot: While staying at a hotel in England with his grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), young Luke (Jasen Fisher) inadvertently spies on a convention of witches. The Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) reveals a plan to turn all children into mice through a magical formula. When they find that Luke has overheard, the witches test the formula on him. Now, with the help of Helga and the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer (Rowan Atkinson), Luke the mouse must fight back against the witches.
The Stars: Director Nicholas Roeg, Anjelica Houston, Rowan Atkinson,
Why it Deserves Better: An adaptation of the Road Dahl novel, brought to life with Jim Henson-engineered puppets and an unforgettable performance from Angelica Houston. With Rowan Atkinson involved, comedic hijinx ensues, and director Nicholas Roeg is no stranger to the weird and twisted. The film’s dark tone matches with its twisted plot, which makes for a splendid Halloween movie.
Why it Remains Obscure: This film has the same problem as Where the Wild Things Are. It is based on a children’s book, but perhaps it is too dark to be considered a children’s movie. It just speaks to the difficulty in making a film which appeals to both kids and adults. Road Dahl famously tried to prevent his name from being associated with the film since it resulted in something that was much different than the original source material.
The Plot: A terrible dragon is terrorizing the medieval land of Urland in the 6th century. Representatives from the kingdom seek the assistance of the wizard Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to defeat the dragon immediately — Urland has been delivering virgins to appease the dragon, and their princess (Chloe Salaman) has rigged the lottery system they use in order to sacrifice herself next. But when Ulrich is killed, the task to confront the dragon falls to the wizard’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol)
The Stars: Director/screenwriter Matthew Robbins, Peter MacNicol, cinematographer Derek Vanlit
Why it Deserves Better: Through the late 70’s and early 80’s Disney may have hit a dry spell in terms of animation, and it forced the company to try new things in their live action films in the hopes of creating a hit. Films like Tron or Black Hole come to mind as films pushing the boundaries of special effects available at the time. But Dragonslayer should be remembered as an innovator in that regard as well. This film also strays from typical Disney fare by being dark, which is unexpected but welcome. Although I would consider it a cult classic, I don’t feel like it gets as much attention as it deserves. The best Disney movies are universally known and appreciated – and this film, despite being better than some of those Disney staples, remains obscure.
Why it Remains Obscure: Tron was really the only live-action Disney film of this era to stand out, and this film was not a hit upon release. Both of those facts hurt its chances to remain popular over time, despite being well-received. Part of the problem is that even though the special effects are good, the story is pretty much as you would expect. The lack of star power also hurts this film’s long term appeal.
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (2007)
The Plot: On the shore of Loch Ness, Scotland, Angus (Alex Etel) finds an unusual egg. When it hatches, it releases an unexpected surprise: a water horse, the legendary creature from Scottish mythology. While the boy tries to keep its existence hidden from his mother (Emily Watson), he and his new pet, Crusoe, quickly become inseparable. But as the water horse grows larger, eventually becoming the fabled Loch Ness monster, Angus must protect his friend from those who would want to do it harm.
The Stars: Emily Watson, Brian Cox
Why it Deserves Better: When you think of heart warming family fantasy films, few can match this one. While many fantasy family films tend to talk down to children, this one is a charming story for both young and old. It plays homage to a classic folklore legend, while showcasing some good special effects. This is the type of crowd-pleasing, enjoyable film you would expect to be showing on reruns of cable TV, but isn’t.
Why it Remains Obscure: As essentially an origin story for the Loch Ness monster, it doesn’t really score many points for creativity or widespread appeal. This is the kind of family film about the connection between a boy and an animal we have seen many times before. It also doesn’t help that the film isn’t that well acted. So, despite good reviews and a good run at the box office, this one has faded because it just doesn’t stand out that much.
The Fisher King (1991)
The Plot: After shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) inadvertently provokes a caller into murdering a group of innocent people in a Manhattan bar, he grows depressed and turns to booze. As he’s about to hit rock bottom, Lucas meets a homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), whose wife was killed by the caller Lucas pushed to the brink. Mentally scarred by his loss, Parry spends his days searching for the Holy Grail. Lucas, feeling culpable for the poor man’s plight, pledges to help him in his quest.
The Stars: Director Terry Gilliam, Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams
Why it Deserves Better: I could have put many of Gilliam’s films on this list, but despite almost all of them being fantasy films and a majority of them being obscure, I chose this one because I feel like it is the one the fewest people know about. But more than just being a fantasy film, this one has real world implications – which doesn’t happen enough in the genre. Here we have two men who are emotionally struggling, and it is through this adventure that they at least find a moment of reprieve. As always, Gilliam brings a clever wit to his script, and impressive visuals.
Why it Remains Obscure: For a brief period in the 90’s, Gilliam was allowed to direct more studio fare, and this is the outcome of one of those attempts. Gilliam is a director who does his own thing, and what results are often wild films. The Fisher King puts some constraints on Gilliam, so it isn’t quite as creative as his other work. That means it relies on cliches more often and relies on William’s manic performance to pull it through. Also, as a more modern take on fantasy, it doesn’t quite hit the hallmarks of the genre. As a result, the film has kind of been lost in the middle (in several regards), where few have been able to find it.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
The Plot: Old and decrepit Krank (Daniel Emilfork) has lost his capacity for dreaming and is attempting to fight death by stealing the dreams of children. Krank’s cadre of cloned henchmen (Dominique Pinon) snatch 5-year-old Denree (Joseph Lucien) to subject him to the horrific dream-retrieval process. The boy’s father, One (Ron Perlman), the hulking strongman of a traveling circus, and his precocious 9-year-old friend, Miette (Judith Vittet), join forces to defeat Krank’s minions and save Denree.
The Stars: Directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon
Why it Deserves Better: If you think of the style of Tim Burton, give it French flair, and then turn the weird dial up to 11, you get directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. They have several creative, but strange films which have become cult hits here in the US, and The City of Lost Children is one of their best. It is one of the most imaginative and interestingly made films I have ever seen. This film is full of odd whimsy, it has its own perspective and pace which makes it a fun watch and makes it stand out in this genre.
Why it Remains Obscure: Strange films are bound to put off viewers, and so just getting people to see this film was going to be difficult from the beginning. But once you get past the film’s unique presentation and art direction, it is still a foreign film with subtitles. That’s yet another obstacle for many people to have to overcome. Combined with a lack of mainstream star power, and there’s not much this film can do about the small niche it finds itself in.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The Plot: Sailing to Baghdad after a narrow escape from the monster island of Colossa, the wedding plans of legendary hero Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) are spoiled by the scheming sorcerer Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). In return for his previous help with the cyclops on Colossa, Sokurah demands that Sinbad retrieve a lamp he lost on the island. When Sinbad refuses, the conjurer shrinks Parisa, forcing the sailor and his crew back to the high seas in order to save her.
The Stars: Kerwin Matthews, Kathryn Crosby, Ray Harryhausen
Why it Deserves Better: The Sinbad trilogy is a criminally underseen set of classic adventure movies. This one is the best of the bunch – full of old school action, adventure, and romance. But more than just a classic fantasy adventure, it is a showcase for the work of stop-motion master special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. While he would go on to make many famous fantasy films, this one, which was his first work in color, somehow gets left out.
Why it Remains Obscure: Movies from the 50’s are difficult to watch if you are used to modern spectacles. They can also be hard to find if they are not considered a classic. By today’s standards, the special effects in this film are not good – but it is more about appreciating the work than it is having to believe they are real. For the rest of the film, it may seem very camp by today’s standards as well. All of these factors result in a film which is difficult to convert new viewers if you don’t appreciate it to begin with.
The Beastmaster (1982)
The Plot: Prehistoric Dar (Marc Singer) uses ESP with animals to save a slave girl (Tanya Roberts) from a sorcerer (Rip Torn).
The Stars: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn, John Amos
Why it Deserves Better: Read that plot synopsis. It sounds like the ultimate 80’s fantasy film, and it is. While other swords and sandals flicks of the era like Conan the Barbarian, and Clash of the Titans went on to become cult hits (complete with remakes!), Beastmaster hasn’t achieved the same level of modern notoriety. Complete with animals, this one is more family-friendly. It is another strange adventure brought to life with the best 80’s B-movie effects they could come up with.
Why it Remains Obscure: The low budget and silly nature of the film certainly have not helped it to be taken seriously by people who did not grow up with it. Really, that is the trick with this film. As a kid growing up in the era, it had everything you would want from a movie. But today? It doesn’t have the same type of appeal. The films’ sequels also kind of doubled down on the approach and may have diluted what made the original so special.