With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about to kick off a brand new five movie series set in the Harry Potter universe, no doubt die-hard Potterheads sit polishing their wands and practicing their spells. The Potterverse has taken its rightful place alongside great imagined universes like Middle-Earth, Wonderland, or the Galaxy Far, Far Away as one of the most enthralling literary and cinematic universes ever.
But what’s a Potter fan to do between movies? What, besides wearing out their DVDs and re-re-reading their Potter books can a Potterhead do to get his or her fix of magic and wonder?
Fortunately, Hollywood (and beyond) has long pumped out its share of magical movies. While none have had the same impact of the Harry Potter series, they nonetheless have, pardon the pun, enchanted audiences with visions of magic, wonder and adventure. The 15 pictures listed here all play on similar themes and motifs as the Potterverse, and should help tithe fans over until the next Potterverse film. One caveat, however: not all the movies here are great films. In fact, some of them are borderline bad. That does not mean, however, that they do not have their charms, and regardless, fans of magic should at least find them fun diversions.
Check out 15 Awesome Harry Potter Substitutes!
15 The Raven
Roger Corman produced this very loose adaptation of the poem by Edgar Allen Poe in 1963, which remains an overlooked classic today. With a script by I Am Legend author Richard Mattheson, and cast that includes Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and a young Jack Nicholson, The Raven follows the misadventures of a group of misfit sorcerers battling each other over old rivalries. Dr. Scarabus (Karloff) has transformed Dr. Bedlo (Lorre) into a raven in a duel. Bedlo enlists the help of Dr. Craven (Price) and Bedlo’s son Rexford (Nicholson) to exact revenge on Scarabus for his dirty dueling.
Mattheson wrote the film as a dark comedy, and the cast has a ball with the catty humor and goofiness of it all. The gothic settings, period costumes and series of wizard duels invoke the Potterverse and the whimsy of the first couple Potter novels. Getting to see great stars of the macabre genre battle it out amid sarcastic quips, however, makes The Raven a must for horror fans. The film also raises the question “what if” the Potter films had gone before the cameras 40 years ago? What treasured performances would the world have seen with actors like Price and Karloff as Hogwarts icons?!
14 Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Angela Lansbury, despite winning four Tony awards and an Honorary Oscar, somehow missed out on the Harry Potter casting calls. That’s our loss… Lansbury is one of the finest actors alive.
How lucky then, that Dame Lansbury already played a witch, and one not a far cry from the wizarding folk of the Potterverse. Bedknobs and Broomsticks has long held cult status among Disney fans, musical lovers, and magic aficionados. Lansbury plays Elgantine Price, a quirky woman who takes in three children during the World War II blitz. The kids soon discover that Miss Price also studies witchcraft from a correspondence college, though her command of the magical arts is somewhat lacking. Miss Price enchants a bedknob that will allow her and the children to travel anywhere in the world, and they begin tracking down her magical mentor as a Nazi invasion looms.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks features a wonderful performance by Lansbury, first rate technical efforts that combine live action with animation, and a hummable set of songs by the Sherman Brothers, best known for composing the music to Mary Poppins. A battle scene, in which Price uses her magic to create an army, has some eerie similarities to one from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s hard to imagine J.K. Rowling didn’t have this movie in mind when she penned the book!
13 Teen Witch
Box office analysts declared Teen Witch dead on arrival in 1989, thanks to stiff competition from movies like Field of Dreams and Heathers, the latter of which built on similar themes. The story follows a teenage girl named Louise who discovers she has magical powers on her 16th birthday. Another local witch named Madame Serena becomes her mentor, as Louise plots to use her magic to become the most popular girl in school.
Without question, Teen Witch is a very '80s teen fantasy, which has helped it find life as a cult film and a nostalgia piece. As Louise, actress Robin Lively has a warm appeal. As Serena, Zelda Rubenstein, best known as the medium Tangina from the Poltergeist movies, steals the movie. That shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Rubenstein’s work, as her unusual look and vocal delivery make her a memorable character actress. Fans of the Potterverse disappointed by the lack of American characters or settings should gain some satisfaction from the Americana of Teen Witch, and viewers fond of the magical genre should enjoy it too.
12 The Black Cauldron
Disney tried its hand at dark fantasy with this animated effort, which bombed in theatres and quickly landed in the Mouse House vaults. Based on the popular novel by Lloyd Alexander—itself something of a precursor to the Harry Potter series—the film follows a seemingly ordinary boy named Taran with a pet psychic pig (yes, a pig). The evil sorcerer-monarch, the Horned King, plots to conquer the world using a zombie army revived through use of the titular cauldron, and must kidnap Taran’s pig to discover its location. Taran, along with the princess Eilonway and the minstrel Fflewddur Fflam must race to procure the cauldron first, and prevent the world from falling into the grasp of the Horned King.
The Black Cauldron features spectacular animation from Disney artists, and a great vocal performance by fantasy staple (and Potter cast alum) John Hurt. That said, the story does drag in places, and a disjointed narrative makes the plot hard to follow. Fans of more conventional sword and sorcery adventures will find plenty to enjoy, and younger fans of the Potter franchise should find a lot to like as well.
Disney and Paramount produced this 1981 flop which tried to capitalize on the Dungeons & Dragons/fantasy fad of the early '80s. Similar to Willow, in that the film tries to follow the Star Wars formula in a medieval setting, Dragonslayer follows a sorcerer’s apprentice named Galen who seeks to liberate the land from a virgin-eating dragon. Ralph Richardson co-stars in the Obi-Wan Kenobi role as the sorcerer Ulrich, Galen’s teacher. The real star of the film, though, is a massive animatronic puppet, designed by special effects legend Phil Tippitt.
Peter MacNicol made one of his first film appearances in Dragonslayer, and his performance as the hero Galen hints at the fine character actor he would later become. Richardson has some fun too as Ulrich, and the movie features some very impressive special effects, even by today’s standards. Potterverse fans will no doubt enjoy the sorcerer-in-training motif and the innocuous adventure plot. Dragonslayer never does quite take flight like the Potter films, or some of the other titles here, though it does feature enough cinematic and special effects magic to keep an audience entertained.
10 Lord of Illusions
More mature Potter fans intrigued by the intimated, darker themes of the series will no doubt find Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions a fantastic diversion. To date, it remains Barker’s last film as director, which should make it attractive to general cinephiles or fans of Barker’s earlier efforts like Hellraiser as well.
Lord of Illusions introduces Scott Bakula (best known as the lead on TV series Quantum Leap and Enterprise) as LA cop Harry D’Amour. As D’Amour investigates a murder with links to the occult, he finds himself drawn into a dangerous mystery involving a famous David Copperfield-type magician, his beautiful wife, and a cult of black magic.
Bakula proves himself a charismatic, if unlikely leading man, and Barker displays his growth of skill as a filmmaker throughout Lord of Illusions, enough so to make his fans weep that he’s renounced directing. Famke Janssen also makes an early appearance as the magician’s wife, and she and Bakula have a strong, sexy chemistry together. The mystery plot has some shocking twists and turns, and the mature fantasy tone will, no doubt, entrance older Potterverse fans. Lord of Illusions might turn off Potter fans who enjoy the more benign, whimsical elements, though fans who like the dark undercurrents or found Lord Voldemort too tame in his film incarnation should find the movie absolutely (excuse the phrase) spellbinding.
Following his success with Hellraiser, Clive Barker set out to make the Star Wars of horror-fantasy films with Nightbreed, a film of jaw-dropping imagination. Nightbreed suffered from a good deal of studio interference which, coupled with Barker’s inexperience, doomed the film to flop on release. A cult following has since rallied to the movie, which prompted the release of a director’s cut in 2014. Perhaps it goes without saying, but anyone wanting to visit Nightbreed’s dark visions should watch the director’s cut!
The movie follows a psychiatric patient named Boone framed for murder by his psychiatrist. While trying to escape incarceration, Boone stumbles upon an underground city of monsters, each possessing unique powers limitations. The monsters initiate the escaped patient as one of their own, even as his doctor, the police and girlfriend follow his trail into the magical underworld.
Like Lord of Illusions, Nightbreed will alienate some viewers while thrilling others. Barker’s penchant for horrific, surreal beauty creates some stunning creatures and images, though the limits of the production show in a number of places. While a spectacular writer, Barker didn’t quite have the technique to manage such a sprawling, pseudo-religious plot, which also makes the story difficult to follow at times. Still, the film offers adult Potter fans some dark, magical pleasures, including a scene-stealing performance by David Cronenberg, best known as the director of biopunk horror films like The Fly. Weird, mature and refreshingly unique, Nightbreed is a near-masterpiece, albeit a very flawed one.
8 The Spiderwick Chronicles
Nickelodeon’s answer to the Harry Potter/young adult fantasy craze, The Spiderwick Chronicles became a minor hit in 2008 thanks to its delightful, macabre take on the fantasy genre.
Based on the popular series of novels of the same name, the movie follows a pair of identical twins (played by Freddy Highmore) who move into a family estate. The boys stumble upon a mystical diary of their ancestor, Arthur Spiderwick, which details the existence of fairies, goblins and other magical creatures. An evil ogre (played by the ever-ogreish Nick Nolte) needs the book to enslave every magical creature on Earth, and thus the boys must discover the fate of their ancestor to save the world.
Besides Highmore and Nolte, The Spiderwick Chronicles features a terrific cast which includes Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, David Stratharin and the voices of Martin Short and Seth Rogan. Juvenile though creepy, The Spiderwick Chronicles speaks more to Potter fans who enjoy the lighter, family-friendly elements of the series. Though not as engrossing as the Potterverse, The Spiderwick Chronicles nevertheless offers an entertaining romp through a magical world.
7 The Golden Compass
Much like the Harry Potter films, The Golden Compass began life as part of an acclaimed series of books—Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Like the Potter stories too, the film follows a young protagonist with a magical destiny. Lyra Belacqua lives in a magical world of humans and spirit-animal demons ruled by an imperious religious order known as the Magesterium. A series of child kidnappings prompts Lyra to strike out on her own with the aid of a magical compass that can tell the future.
The Golden Compass bombed on release, due in part to protests over the film’s perceived anti-religious themes, and due to studio New Line deleting the final 20 minutes of the movie, which included the story’s climax. The plot deletions make The Golden Compass a flawed and frustrating movie at times, though a fantastic cast and great production values still give the movie an engaging quality. Like the Harry Potter stories, The Golden Compass features some buried, more adult themes which do raise questions about religion and its power to manipulate the masses. Even in its mangled state, The Golden Compass still has a lot to love, and manages to at least entertain through its runtime.
Also, lovers of the novels shouldn't fret: a reboot is in the works!
The late, great Jim Henson tried his hand at the fantasy genre, collaborating with George Lucas on this 1986 bomb. In recent years, Labyrinth has developed an avid cult following, and earned a more favorable reputation.
The story follows a young girl named Sarah who must traverse the titular maze and rescue her infant brother from a wicked goblin king. Though Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie play the ostensible leads, Henson realizes most of his characters through his masterful and innovative puppetry. A script by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame provides a contemporary take on the Wizard of Oz-style journey story, while Bowie also provides a memorable soundtrack.
Labyrinth is an uneven film, but an inventive and unique one. Henson’s creatures never looked better on screen, Connelly and Bowie both have magnetic charisma and the fantasy designs by artist Brian Froud give the movie a unique look. Fans of the Potterverse should delight in the imaginative characters and environments, even if the story follows a predictable route. Labyrinth features more technical breakthroughs than storytelling innovations, but as a serviceable fantasy piece, it should keep Potter fans occupied.
5 The Worst Witch
J.K. Rowling borrowed heavily from this cult TV movie in crafting the Potter universe. Like the Potter stories, The Worst Witch is set in a magical school for young witches and wizards. A very young Fairuza Balk plays Mildred, a student who has trouble controlling her powers. One day she stumbles upon a sinister plan by another witch to take over the school, and Mildred must master her powers to save the day. Charlotte Rae, Tim Curry and Dame Diana Rigg round out the cast, while Annie composer Charles Strouse contributed the music.
The Worst Witch first aired on HBO in 1986 and enchanted viewers with its campy magical charms. Subsequent reairings during Halloween season helped the film develop a cult following and a DVD release in 2004. Perhaps more than any other film here, The Worst Witch most closely parallels the Potter stories in terms of plot, tone and charm. Younger Potter fans will no doubt enjoy the similarities, and even older fans should find a lot to like.
4 Flight of Dragons
This little-seen animated effort from Rankin/Bass debuted on CBS in 1982 before slipping into obscurity. A recent DVD release has helped renew interest in the film, which features some wonderful hand-drawn animation. It also employs a spectacular voice cast which includes John Ritter, Harry Morgan, Victor Buono and James Earl Jones.
Flight of Dragons tells the epic saga of four wizards warring amongst themselves. With their magic powers on the wane thanks to the rise of technology, a renegade decides to conquer the world himself. The benevolent wizard Carolinus uses his magic to summon a modern-day scientist for help as the magicians begin to fight each other using dragons.
Flight of Dragons has many dated elements, though the performances of the cast, unique animation and story of dueling wizards should please most Potter fans. Rowling never let her wizards ride dragons—at least, not in battle—though Flight of Dragons provides an interesting idea of how those sequences might have transpired.
Oh, you knew it was coming! George Lucas tried to refit his Star Wars mythology set in the middle ages and populated with knights and wizards with this early Ron Howard effort. Warwick Davis heads up a cast that includes Val Kilmer, Kevin Pollack and Jean Marsh in this first-rate fantasy production. Lucas produced, as well as wrote the story, which parallels the hero’s journey spine of Star Wars.
Unfortunately, beyond the excellent production design, Willow never quite takes off. Howard doesn’t have quite the right touch to direct fantasy and a number of the characters come off boring. The mythology of the film never captivates the way it did in Star Wars, though the movie does have some great action and groundbreaking special effects. Davis gives a fine performance, and Marsh, as the evil sorceress Bavmorda, injects the movie with some much-needed energy. Willow might alienate a casual audience, though fans of all things Potter should get their money’s worth.
2 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Tim Burton makes a welcome return to form and family fare with this delightful 2016 entry. Eva Green stars in the title role, a mistress of a home for “peculiars;” that is, children born with strange powers and abilities. Asa Butterfield plays Jake, a young boy who stumbles upon the home thanks to the stories of his deceased grandfather (Terrance Stamp), and quickly falls in love with the strange, creepy student body. Jake and Miss Peregrine must race to stop the evil Hollows, led by Samuel L. Jackson from finding and murdering the children for their powers.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children combines the best elements from both the Harry Potter and X-Men film series, and strikes a good balance between the creepy and the whimsical. Green, Stamp and Jackson all give fine performances, and the film’s central relationship between Jake and his grandfather should move more than a few audience members. Though Miss Peregrine doesn’t quite hit the epic highs of the Potterverse, it still manages to find a unique identity, and should win over fans of adventure, magic and mystery.
1 The Neverending Story
Audiences in 1984 made a surprise hit out of the German-produced fantasy film The Neverending Story. As directed by acclaimed Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen, the film combines state-of-the-art special effects with an almost post-modern story. As a young boy reads the titular book in our world, he imagines the events of another boy in the magical world of Fantasia. Yet as the book (and film) goes on, the young boy begins to question just how imaginary the world of the book is.
Featuring two winning performances from moppet actors Barret Oliver and Noah Hathaway, The Neverending Story creates a magical world on par with anything in Middle-Earth, Oz or, well, the Potterverse. The movie moves at a breakneck pace from one adventure to the next, and introduces a host of delightful characters, including Falcor the Luckdragon, subject of a number of internet memes. Potter fans attracted to the themes of childhood wonder, adolescence and mysterious enchantments will find a number of the same here, and while the effects look dated in places, The Neverending Story has enough to love to hold even the most cynical viewer’s attention.
Know another Potteresque movie we didn't mention? Tell us in the comments!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theatres November 18, 2016.
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