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The Best Fantasy Movies of the ’80s, Ranked

A collage of '80s fantasy movie characters

There was more going on in the movies of the 1980s than anamorphic lens flare, analog synthesizer soundtracks, and lip gloss. It can be easy to romanticize the pre-internet era, especially in our current era of overwhelm, but the reality is that the ’80s were a decade when conservatism and capitalism were at all-time highs in the U.S. Other plot points of the American ’80s story include the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the development of synthetic opioid drugs, the introduction of crack cocaine, the Satanic Panic, and the anti-communist sentiment that fueled the Cold War. It was a decade when fear of nuclear war was an everyday topic of discussion, and jangly pop hits had titles like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

Audiences needed an escape from the reality of the ’80s and, inspired by both the growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons and the unrivaled success of Star Wars, filmmakers opened enchanting new portals to unreal worlds. Fantasy and science fiction enjoyed a full-blown cinematic renaissance. Here are 10 of the best fantasy films from the ’80s.

10. Krull (1983)

A giant white spider in a web inside a dark cave, from the film Krull
(Columbia Pictures)

Krull is a sci-fi fantasy swashbuckler so obviously inspired by the success of Star Wars that more than one scene is a shot-for-shot homage to A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back (the only Star Wars movies released at the time). Written by Stanford Sherman and directed by Peter Yates, the story follows Prince Colwyn and a predictably Tolkien-like fellowship of warriors on a quest to rescue Colwyn’s bride Princess Lyssa from a fortress of alien invaders who are aesthetically equal parts Stormtroopers, Cylons (from the original Battlestar Galactica series), and Maximilian, the floating murderbot from The Black Hole.

The charm of Krull is not its originality, but rather the way its adventure narrative rolls and bangs like a pinball machine come to life. Among its predictably all-white, mostly British cast are Liam Neeson (16 years before he played Qui-Gon Jinn), Robbie Coltrane (18 years before he played Rubeus Hagrid), and Francesca Annis from David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune as a giant, scene-stealing spider woman.

A co-production of the UK and the U.S., Krull was an unequivocal box office bomb, but attained cult film status almost immediately upon release, which is enough for it to earn its place among the best ’80s fantasy films.

9. The Black Cauldron (1985)

A still from the animated film The Black Cauldron depicting a sorcerer in a robe standing over a black iron cauldron full of neon green liquid
(Walt Disney Pictures)

The Black Cauldron might be a legendary mess, but it does hold a place in animation history. The first film released by Walt Disney Studios to receive a PG rating, it also features the first computer generated images in an animated Disney film. Even still, the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty reveals that “The Black Cauldron cost $44 million to make and made less than half that at the box office.”

A loose adaptation of the fantasy pentalogy The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, which was itself based on Welsh folklore, the plot follows a boy named Taran on a quest far from home to dethrone an emperor who wants to use the cauldron to conquer the world. Other characters include a psychic pig named Hen Wen and an army of the dead called the Cauldron Born.

Alas, its well-documented production problems are evident onscreen, from the disjointed narrative to the sometimes sloppy animation sequences. Disney had not experienced this level of critical and commercial failure since Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and would not experience it again until Treasure Planet in 2002 and, most recently, Strange World in 2022. Even still, nothing can diminish the nostalgia factor of The Black Cauldron.

8. Willow (1988)

Warwick Davis as Willow in the film Willow raising his arms triumphantly among his fellow villagers
(MGM / UA Distribution Co.)

George Lucas conceived of a high fantasy about the adventures of an aspiring magician all the way back in 1972, but it was not until 1988—when the family-friendly fantasy trend was on a downward arc—that it was finally realized. Written by Bob Dolman, directed by Ron Howard, and executive produced by Lucas, Willow tells a story with strong folkloric vibes about a sorcerer-in-training who bands together with two brownies (household spirits, not Girl Scouts) and a wandering warrior to save a baby from an evil queen.

Warwick Davis’s role as the titular character was his fourth film performance, but the first time he ever appeared on screen without full body and face coverage (as in Return of the Jedi and two made-for-television Ewoks films) or prosthetic makeup (as in Labyrinth). Willow showcases Val Kilmer’s physical charms almost as much as Davis’s acting skills. It also stars Joanne Whalley, who met Kilmer on the set and married him soon after the production, as well as Jean Marsh, who gave a similar performance as Mombi in Return to Oz three years earlier.

Filmed in the gorgeous Dinorwic quarry in Wales and at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire with additional photography in New Zealand, the setting of Willow is organically magical. The visual effects by ILM were groundbreaking in their time for introducing digital morphing technology. And while the narrative might not be as inventive as other ’80s fantasies, the chemistry between Davis and Kilmer make it truly memorable.

7. Legend (1985)

A woman kneeling down in front of a unicorn on the bank of a stream in 'Legend'
(Universal Pictures)

The story of Legend could be encapsulated within the pages of a picture book: A pure being must stop the Lord of Darkness from enshrouding the world in never-ending nighttime. But like the best picture books, the visual design leaves its deceptively simple ideas open to interpretation. Directed by Ridley Scott, Legend is an incomparable vibes-forward cinematic experience. Its lush set design, flawless prosthetic make-up effects, and meticulous lighting and cinematography create a dreamlike atmosphere in every scene.

Legend was neither critically nor commercially successful when it was released, but it received awards nominations for its costume design, makeup design, and visual effects, and won an award for its cinematography. Positive critique usually centers the performances of Tom Cruise as Jack O’ the Green, a green man (and aforementioned “pure being”), and Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness, whose character design looks like the Baroque ancestor of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, and whose performance is as iconic as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The director’s cut released in 2002 restores the original 113-minute version Scott had originally intended, which makes more narrative sense than the original 90-minute theatrical version. Both versions have the rare, precious power to take the viewer away to a place even farther from present-day reality than the mid-’80s. Legend is legendary because it makes its fantasy setting so tactile.

6. The Last Unicorn (1982) 

A still from the animated film The Last Unicorn that shows a white unicorn standing in a meadow under bright moonlight
(Jensen Farley Pictures)

Based on a novel by Peter S. Beagle, this animated film tells the story of a unicorn who learns—by way of a butterfly who speaks in riddles—that she is indeed the last of her species, and begins a quest to find out what happened to her kin. Beagle wrote the screenplay for this adaptation, which elevates it to the upper echelons of all-ages fantasy films based on books. 

The gentle awe that informs The Last Unicorn is rare in 21st century children’s films. Supported by the voice acting of Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee, and set to the unambiguously ’80s sounds of the folk rock band America (with the London Symphony Orchestra), this film is a gem unique to its era. 

The Last Unicorn was directed and produced by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, but looks cleaner and more fluid than other Rankin/Bass productions like ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Hobbit because the animation was done at Topcraft in Tokyo. Soon after this production, Topcraft was hired by Hayao Miyazaki to animate Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and many of its animators became founding members of Studio Ghibli.

5. The Secret of NIMH (1982)

A still from the animated film The Secret of NIMH that depicts a rat with glowing eyes looming over a mouse
(MGM / UA Entertainment Co.)

The first feature film directed by Don Bluth, The Secret of NIMH is an animated adaptation of the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. Bluth went on to direct more commercially successful films like An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. The Secret of NIMH has more in common with later Bluth films like Anastasia and Titan A.E. because it has an emotional intelligence that other animated films of the decade lack. While other children’s movies of the time were preoccupied with selling toys—and in some instances were based on toys and produced in order to sell even more toys—The Secret of NIMH matches its visual dazzle with startling maturity.

A widowed field mouse named Mrs. Brisby (voiced by Elizabeth Hartman) plans to move her family away from their home on a farm before the plows come, but before she can do so, her son Timothy (voiced by Ina Fried, who was credited as Ian Fried before she came out as transgender) becomes dangerously ill. Mrs. Brisby seeks the support of rats who were subjects in human medical testing that enhanced their intelligence, and discovers a magical link between their species.

The hand-drawn animation and hand-painted backgrounds are made even more mesmerizing by a gorgeous use of light and shadow and a captivating soundtrack. The Secret of NIMH is not only one of the best fantasy films of the ’80s, but also one of the best animated films of all time.

4. Return to Oz (1985)

Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gale in the film Return to Oz looking into the distance as Jean Marsh as the disembodied head of a witch looks over her shoulder
(Buena Vista Distribution)

Return to Oz was another controversially dark fantasy released by Walt Disney Pictures in the ’80s (see also: The Black Cauldron). Starring Fairuza Balk in her screen debut as Dorothy Gale, alongside actors Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, and Piper Laurie, it was criticized as being too grim for family viewing. Based on The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Return to Oz was presented as an unofficial sequel to the cherished MGM film from 1939. The many conspicuous differences between this film and the Technicolor musical starring Judy Garland help explain why critics and audiences had such a negative reaction. Indeed, Return to Oz is to The Wizard of Oz what The Dark Knight is to the 1960s Batman television series.

Dorothy escapes a mental asylum and returns to the Land of Oz to find it has been reduced to rubble. She is stalked by Wheelers, humanoid beings with wheels for hands and feet who recall the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange more than anything from a family film. Dorothy soon meets a witch who changes her head to suit her moods, and the claymation Nome King who becomes more menacing with every line of dialogue. Dorothy struggles to restore Oz with help from a hen named Billina, a wind-up man named Tik-Tok, a pumpkinhead man named Jack, an animated piece of furniture named Gump, and Princess Ozma herself. But there is no singing and dancing along the way.

Return to Oz earned less than half its budget at the box office, but eventually developed a dedicated following, in part for being so faithful to its source material. Majestically bizarre and highly rewatchable, it is truly one of the best fantasy films of the ’80s.

3. The NeverEnding Story (1984) 

A still from the film The NeverEnding Story depicting Noah Hathaway as Atreyu standing in front of the luck dragon Falkor under a starry sky
(Warner Bros.)

The NeverEnding Story is the first English-language feature by German filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, adapted from the novel of the same name by Michael Ende. In a narrative framing device not unlike The Princess Bride (but without the satire), a boy named Bastian finds a magical book that tells the story of a young warrior named Atreyu who is tasked with preventing a force called the Nothing from devouring the world of Fantasia.

The NeverEnding Story presents a fantasy world with folkloric settings (the Swamps of Sadness, the Sea of Possibilities), populated by characters like the Chinese-inspired luck dragon Falkor, and the Scheherazade-ish Childlike Empress. It is a story about the magical powers of stories themselves.

In 1984, The NeverEnding Story was publicized as the most expensive film ever produced outside of the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. The effects budget might not be immediately apparent to contemporary audiences, but the characterizations, costume design, and theme song by Giorgio Moroder and Limahl make it enduringly nostalgic. Like the book that tells Bastian the story onscreen, the film as a whole encapsulates the feeling of childlike wonder and the joy of being not only engaged, but mesmerized by stories.

2. The Dark Crystal (1982)

A still from the film The Dark Crystal depicting the Gelflings Jen and Kira flying up the side of a rock face
(Universal Pictures)

The Dark Crystal is more than another dark fantasy film from the early ’80s. It’s unique in the true sense of the word. It was the first live-action feature film without any humans on screen—and it remains one of very few. Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz from a story by Henson, its combination of puppetry, animatronics, and practical effects is still unrivaled (yes, including the puppet Jabba the Hutt who would appear one year later). Even small character designs like the Gelflings required at least two, and as many as four, puppeteers to achieve believable movement. The result is a story space that is luxuriantly textural and physically grounded.

Henson is ambitious and inventive in his worldbuilding: A millennium before the story begins, two new cultures appeared on the planet Thra after a Shard was broken off the Crystal of Truth—the unflinching, bureaucratic Skeksis, and the gentle, collectivist urRu. The indigenous people of Thra are the Gelflings, who are unknowingly essential to the restoration of their homeworld. Two Gelflings named Jen and Kira attempt to restore harmony to Thra by returning the Shard to the Crystal of Truth.

Originally marketed as a family film from the trusted creators of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, The Dark Crystal was dramatic, dreamy, eerie, and at times disturbing in a way that transfixed some audiences but confused others. The critical response was polarized, but its visual style and emotional core make it an essential fantasy film.

1. Labyrinth (1986)

Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams dancing at a masquerade ball with David Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth in the film Labyrinth
(Tri-Star Pictures)

No other fantasy film from the ’80s encapsulates the joy of storytelling or the uncynical hope for a better world quite like Labyrinth. The story started as a collaboration between Jim Henson and Brian Froud, the English illustrator who created concept art and character designs for The Dark Crystal. Ultimately, it was directed by Henson and executive produced by George Lucas from a screenplay by Monty Python founder Terry Jones.

The story begins in a similar way as The NeverEnding Story and The Princess Bride: A teen girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) recites passages from a book titled The Labyrinth, and as she tries to recall the last line, she remembers that she’s late to babysit her brother Toby. Frustrated by having to watch the baby, Sarah wishes for him to be taken away by the goblins in the book. The baby disappears and the film officially becomes a fantasy when the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) appears. Jareth gives Sarah 13 hours to navigate a labyrinth and find her baby brother before Jareth turns him into a goblin. A dungeon, a bog, a masquerade ball, puppets made in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and synth-driven bops by David Bowie ensue.

Released the same summer as ’80s blockbusters Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Labyrinth earned less than its budget and received mixed reviews from critics who thought it was ugly in parts and violent in others. Despite the many influences openly acknowledged by Henson—The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and the art of Maurice Sendak— Labyrinth has since become the exemplary fantasy of its time.

(featured image: Warner Bros. / Jensen Fairley Pictures / Tri-Star / The Mary Sue)

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Aria Baci is a pop culture critic and comic book script writer who is as passionate about intersectional feminism as she is about science fiction. Her writing has appeared in Design*Sponge, Geeks OUT, and the Mine! comics anthology.