While we don’t hesitate to label a film “science fiction”, it’s a much rarer occasion that we’ll call a film a “fantasy”. Sure, things like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Harry Potter immediately scream fantasy, but beyond these key examples, things can get a little fuzzy. Just the other day, I was trying to think of my favourite fantasy films and found myself floundering.
Fantasy books? Easy. Films? Not so much.
At first, this made me think that the fantasy genre just isn’t as prominent in cinema as it is in science fiction. After all, it seems a new sci-fi block buster comes out every month, and here I was struggling to name the last fantasy film trailer I saw. Then I thought about it a little more and discovered the real reason.
There are plenty of fantasy feature films out there. The difference is that we don’t always think of them as “fantasy movies”. In fact, the genre is so broad and prolific that when it comes to films, we often focus more on fantasy sub-genres or genre-blends than we do on the overarching genre.
Fantasy Movie Types
So, what are these sub-genres and genre-blends?
Well, I scoured through several “top 100 fantasy movies” and “best fantasy movies of all time” lists on movie-rating sites to identify a few key types. Many films get classified as Action, Adventure, Thriller, Horror and Comedy, but those categories are a bit broad and could encompass fantasy and non-fantasy films, so it seems more useful to narrow things down further:
1. Epic Fantasy Films
These are the most recognisable “fantasy films”. They are usually based on books and involve swords, spells, wizards, dragons, quests, princes, princesses and just generally all the things you would associate with a run-of-the-mill fantasy.
Some examples: Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Stardust, The Chronicles of Narnia, Eragon, The Neverending Story, The Golden Compass, The Wizard of Oz
2. Horror Movies/Paranormal Thrillers
Yes, not all horror films are fantasy films, just as not all horror novels are fantasy novels, but many are, particularly when it comes to ghosts and supernatural creatures. There are many films that focus on vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts and the occult, usually in a real-world setting. Because these films often get nested under the categories of ‘thriller’, ‘horror’ and ‘action’, they don’t always get the ‘fantasy’ label.
Some examples: Underworld, Dracula, Constantine, Van Helsing, The Frighteners, The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Let the Right One In, The Conjuring, The Others, The Ring, The Sixth Sense
3. Disney Animated Features
Almost every single Disney animated film is a fantasy. Furthermore, they’re almost all fairy tale fantasies, but I’ve given them their own category because Disney is such an iconic brand that people tend to think of Disney films as a genre all of their own.
Some examples: Frozen, Tangled, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, The Lion King
4. Fairy Tale Films
Films that are heavily based on a traditional fairy tale, or have a fairy tale feel to them, would include many Disney animated films, and other animated films, but also many live action films.
Some examples: Ever After, Maleficent, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Once Upon a Time, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Slayer, Edward Scissorhands
5. Superhero Movies
Yes, some superhero films explain away the superpowers with science, but generally superhero films are as much fantasy as they are science fiction, perhaps more so, given the impossible and fantastical nature of many of the superpowers.
Some examples: Thor, The Avengers, The Incredibles, Hellboy, Watchmen, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Superman, Mystery Men
6. Children’s Films
So many children’s films are fantasy movies – i.e. involve magic or impossible happenings/creatures in some way, but we often overlook these aspects and think of them simply as ‘children’s films’ or ‘family films’. Talking animals and magical powers are so commonplace in this kind of movie that we barely bat an eyelid when we see them.
Some examples: How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story, The Witches, Jumanji, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lego Movie, The Princess Bride, Monsters Inc.
7. Monster Movies
Many monster films are more science fiction than fantasy, working under the guise of scientific plausibility (e.g. Jurassic Park). However, some are equal parts fantasy, with supernatural monsters coming out of the woodwork to terrorise cities and countries.
Some examples: Godzilla, The Mummy, Dracula, Van Helsing, The Creature from the Black Lagoon
8. Christmas Movies
Again, not all Christmas movies are fantasy films, but many are. The moment you get reindeer and elves and Santa Claus involved, things tend to be pretty solidly in the realm of magic and the impossible.
Some examples: Elf, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Gremlins, A Christmas Carol, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Santa Claus, The Polar Express
9. Magical Realism
There is often contention as to whether magical realism is truly a type of fantasy or not (often it involves the magic being not real but in fact imagined by the characters, or being something symbolic rather than something tangible). I tend to be pretty broad in my understanding of a fantasy, so I include it.
Some examples: Pan’s Labyrinth, Sucker Punch, Alice in Wonderland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Amélie, Life of Pi, Big Fish
10. Magical-Twist Romantic Comedies
Okay, I call them that for lack of a better title, but you know the kind I’m talking about. One impossible, magical thing happens that changes someone’s life: they become a teenager again, or they change genders, or they are suddenly much older, or they can suddenly hear what other people are thinking, or they are suddenly God. These ones are very light on the fantasy element, I have to admit, but still hinge on a bit of fairy dust or some magical voodoo to get things happening.
Some examples: Suddenly 30, Dating the Enemy, Bruce Almighty, Shallow Hal, 17 Again, Liar Liar, Groundhog Day, About Time
Of course, some of the above genres overlap, and you could classify a film as using several of them… but that’s in the nature of genres to be a bit fuzzy and non-exclusive.
I’ve found, when you broaden out your understanding of “fantasy movies” to include all of the above, it suddenly becomes quite overwhelming to pick your favourites. It also makes any favourite fantasy film list you cobble together look a bit all-over-the-place. Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot, and managed to choose my top 25.
10 thoughts on “The 10 Popular Types of Fantasy Movies”
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A very good analysis. You’re consistent with Orson Scott Card’s handy distinction between sci-fi and fantasy: “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.”
So The Avengers would clearly be fantasy. But then you have the problem of Star Trek, where violating Einstein’s theory of relativity was routine.
Yes it’s a really tricky one sometimes with that fantasy/sci-fi division. Something like Star Trek is quintessential science fiction, yet the science can be pretty dubious, as you point out. I um-ed and ah-ed about whether to include Guardians of the Galaxy and X-men on this fantasy list, as they have many rather magical and highly implausible elements (I guess Orson Scott Card would have included them!) but ultimately I think they’re more science fiction in style. I guess there are a whole range of films that are really more science-fantasy, where vague “scientific” references get used to explain away what is essentially magic/impossible, so it becomes pretty hard to separate them into one or the other.
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I like this, and I’d agree that some films cross over. Enchanted, for instance, being a magical romance and Disney musical combo. You’re right, as well, to include movie monsters such as Godzilla and Black Lagoon that on first glance don’t necessarily appear fantastic.
Ah yes I forgot about Enchanted – it’s been a while since I saw it. That’s clearly a fantasy film, but also something that fits into several of the above categories.
I um-ed and ah-ed about whether to include Guardians of the Galaxy and X-men on this fantasy list, as they have many rather magical and highly implausible elements (I guess Orson Scott Card would have included them!) but ultimately I think they’re more science fiction in style.
great analysis! love the way OSC explains the differences because it really can be a very thin line dividing the two.
cant wait to read your list!
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Yes it is indeed a thin line! I’m a bit behind but will put up the list soon – I guess part of the problem is it’s so hard to choose favourites 🙂
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I hear ya. Completely understand that problem
Totally agree with the problem of genres overlapping – and that’s half the fun. At a writing workshop once, when I said that I’d been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid, the person running the workshop thought that was unusual, that people tended to read one or the other. I was a bit stunned by that. In my experience they’re all part of a spectrum, whether in books, film, TV, games or whatever, and often the best ones are the hardest to classify.
Btw, the only thing I’d question on your list is classifying ‘The Princess Bride’ is a kids’ movie 🙂
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