Fantasy can be a genre description. It often overlaps with sci-fi and adventure films, and can encompass way more than the swords and shields that many think of when picturing it. At its best, fantasy is a genre of wonder and spectacle. The films on this list should transport you to worlds that are completely unique. What’s great about fantasy at its best, though, is that these worlds don’t have to feel distant or completely removed from our own. Instead, fantasy can use worlds that are different from ours on the surface to say something profound about the ways these worlds are still the same.
In looking at this list, fantasy is basically defined as taking place in a world where strange and often magical things occur that are completely outside the realm of real world possibility. Of course, that leads to a wide array of films, all united by one thing: critics seem to love them. Rotten Tomatoes takes the number of reviews and the weight of the film into consideration for this list, and with that in mind, here are Rotten Tomatoes' 15 Highest Rated Fantasy Movies Ever.
If it did anything, Groundhog Day confirmed that Bill Murray was an extraordinary talent. His performance is soulful, sad, and completely alive. Groundhog Day is a fantasy-comedy film about love-- not just loving another person, but loving your own existence and being grateful for what you have. Murray, whose cynical weatherman is stuck living the same day over and over again, begins to appreciate the time he’s been given.
Of course, this is Bill Murray, so Groundhog Day also benefits from being frequently hilarious. Still, it’s the film’s surprising poignancy that sticks with you when the credits roll. Murray’s performances won over critics, as did the ingenious premise by Danny Rubin, as adapted Harold Ramis. Groundhog Day plays every year on its titular holiday, but you should watch it more frequently than that. If you do, it may remind you how sweet life is, even if you feel like you’re stuck living the same day over, and over, and over.
Wings of Desire may be the most under-the-radar film on this list, but that doesn’t mean Wim Wender's film doesn’t deserve its spot. This 1987 Franco-German film follows an angel who falls in love with a woman and decides he wants to be human and be with her. As a result, Wings of Desire becomes a beautiful and moving portrait of life as it’s lived, filled with confusion, pain, and emotion.
In some ways, the angel in the film gives up his own privilege. He was only an observer before, gifted with distance and a certain laissez-faire attitude. Of course, now he’s lost that privilege, and is forced to contend with all of the problems faced by every person, from the mundane to the existential. Wings of Desire won over critics because it managed to tell its story with a deep passion for its characters, and by carefully meditating on the question of being human. Like the best art, it attempted to make sense of existence.
Babe is a movie about a talking pig, but it would be a mistake to write it off because of that. In addition to being incredibly sweet, Babe is also an example of one of filmmaking’s fundamental truths: any topic can make a great film. Written by Mad Max's George Miller, Babe is the story of a pig who doesn’t fit in to the world he’s been dropped into. In making the story so simple and sweet, Babe becomes a movie that everyone can relate to and feel touched by.
Surprisingly, these qualities resonated quite strongly with critics, who seemed to adore the movie almost unanimously. Its sequel, Pig in the City was also well-reviewed, which is remarkable considering the fact that they are both about talking animals. When you decide to take these animals seriously, and treat their emotions as real and important, you get something like Babe. If only people would do it more often.
The Princess Bride manages to be both winsome and completely self-aware, skewering many of the tropes that run rampant in most fairytales. Director Rob Reiner framed the film's story as a grandfather and grandson reading a book, giving it elements of meta humor. That’s not to say that The Princess Bride isn’t charming and sweet, because it is. In being aware of the conventions that it’s playing with, though, the film becomes much more acerbic and referential.
The Princess Bride is an unmitigated success for all of these reasons, and critics tended to agree. The best parodies can lampoon their subjects while paying tribute to them, and The Princess Bride does just that. This is a movie that makes fun of the high drama and magical jargon of fantasy films, but it’s also deeply in love with those concepts. It works because it can be both, and knows that that makes it a better film.
The Return of the King is famous for all sorts of reasons. It’s the culmination of Peter Jackson's three-year trilogy that beautifully captured the stories of its source material. It’s also the first fantasy film to win Best Picture, and not because it shied away from the genre elements. No, The Return of the King features a climactic battle with an army of the dead where an elf takes down a giant elephant. It definitely knows it’s a fantasy movie.
The film is also a momentous achievement in both scale and storytelling. It helped define an entire age of cinema, and created a world so immersive and detailed that people still want to visit today. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Return of the King showed audiences what epic truly means. This is a trilogy-capper that doesn’t sacrifice emotion for action. It understands that those things are intertwined, and uses them as such. It may have one too many endings, but The Return of the King is a triumphant end to the The Lord of the Rings story... end of story.
Pan’s Labyrinth is just great. It tells the story of a young girl’s escape from the horrors of her own world, and does so with a completely singular vision that only its director, Guillermo Del Toro, could bring to the project. The film is set just after the Spanish Civil War and focuses on the conflict from the perspective of a little girl. Using that setting as a bleak backdrop, Pan’s Labyrinth is able to make a movie that is both fiercely grounded and prone to flights of fancy.
As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Pan’s Labyrinth is interested in the themes of war and darkness that it establishes early on. In taking these ideas seriously and coupling them with a fantastical premise, Pan’s Labyrinth reveals the ways in which the fantasy genre as a whole can comment on the real world. Critics tended to agree, and have lauded Pan’s Labyrinth as one of the best films of the 21st Century.
Tom Hanks has been one of the biggest movie stars on the planet for over two decades now, but when Big came out in 1988, it proved that Hanks would be a star for years to come. Big tells the story of one of a child’s simplest fantasy made reality. Young Josh wishes he could be 30, and finds that his wish has come true. From there, Big is exactly what you’d expect, and it's wonderful.
The film is one of the better comedies in existence, and its message of treasuring the simplicity and wonder of your youth is as timeless as they come. Hanks brings boundless enthusiasm to the role, and creates in Josh a sense of wonder that is accompanied by a longing for the world he left behind. Critics loved the film upon its release, and it helped make Hanks the star he is today. Even without him, though, Big is important. Childhood is fun, kids. Don’t skip it.
The second The Lord of the Rings installment on this list, The Two Towers just ekes ahead of its successor. Of course, the entire trilogy was critically adored, in part because it made fantasy something that could be appreciates as both serious and highly entertaining. Perhaps the defining achievement of The Two Towers is the battle for Helm’s Deep, which may still be the greatest set piece of the entire trilogy.
The other notable addition to The Two Towers is Smeagol, who we learn a great deal about in this installment, and is perfectly brought to life by Andy Serkis. The Two Towers has an edge over the films on either side of it in part because it’s stuck in the middle. It doesn’t have to expose audiences to this world or tie everything up. Instead, it can be darker and more introspective, and can bring viewers into a world they already understand to show us how things have changed since they last visited it.
Frederico Fellini's 8 ½ sticks out a bit on this list. It’s a little more serious than most of the other entries, and it also happens to be foreign. The film follows an Italian filmmaker who finds himself creatively stuck, and decides to explore his own thoughts about his life and his loves. These thoughts are depicted onscreen, and often become quite strange and fantastical as he's faced with manifestations of all the women in life, both real and imagined. As the filmmaker becomes more introspective, he finds the film he’s making becomes increasingly autobiographical.
8 ½ is widely regarded as a masterpiece, a careful meditation on the things in life that make us human. As art and life intermingle, we begin to realize how personal creation is, and see that 8 ½ is also a loving tribute to the art of filmmaking. Critics adored the movie upon its release, and still fawn over it today.
This probably isn’t the Beauty and the Beast that you were expecting, but it’s actually the best reviewed adaptation of this story. This 1946 French film by Jean Cocteau is similar to its animated counterpart in many ways, but it is also given the opportunity to be darker and stranger than the children’s movie ever could be. As the young woman falls for the beast, we are given a more specific sense of what this kind of strange fixation might come from.
Ultimately, the film diverges from the popular animated tale as the Beast tests Belle’s fidelity-- a test which she fails because of mitigating surfaces. Le Belle et la la Bête shifts into a story of love and loss. It becomes a surreal journey about appearances and caring, one that mesmerized critics upon the film’s release. There’s a reason this film’s animated successor is so popular, and it has a lot to do with the incredibly strong and unique vision of this film.
There are plenty of great Christmas films, but Miracle on 34th Street is one of the very best. The film follows Kris Kringle, a Santa Claus who becomes incredibly popular in the Manhattan Macy’s, and eventually claims that he is the actual Santa Claus. After he begins to make this claim, a court case is held to determine his mental health and his authenticity.
Miracle on 34th Street is markedly serious, especially for a Christmas film. Its real ideas are ones about what adulthood takes away from people, and these ideas would eventually become central to many Christmas films, and even to fantasy as a genre. Critics loved the film for its belief in the real magic of the world, and for its earnestness and sincerity. It may technically be defined as a fantasy, but Miracle on 34th Street would argue that its magic is very real. And most reviews definitely agree.
Mary Poppins is so many things. It’s a musical, a comedy, a fantasy, and a drama. Perhaps most importantly, though, Mary Poppins is a film about a family who is lost. Jane and Michael Banks just want to feel noticed, and their father doesn’t understand that he’s not giving them what they need. The film deftly tells this story about a man who accepts that fun can be a part of life.
A Disney classic, Mary Poppins was so well-reviewed because it came to be understood as the embodiment of the Disney brand. Julie Andrews is marvelous in the lead role. Mary is a creation straight out of a fantasy, complete with quirks and charms that make her impossible to hate, even when she’s stern. What really makes the movie tick though is the relationship between these children and their father. After all, Mary Poppins doesn’t come to save the children, she comes to save the family
George Bailey had a wonderful life. That’s the story this film tells, and it’s one that has given It's a Wonderful Life a lasting legacy in the decades since it was released. We follow Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey from an early age, and we see all the things he sacrificed to give those around him a better chance. Using a premise that has been repurposed many times since, Stewart is guided by a guardian angel named Clarence through an alternate version of his own life, one where he was never born.
Although the premise may seem hokey or clichéd now, it was revolutionary at the time. In looking at all the good he did in his own life, he came to appreciate what he had. It’s a beautiful movie about satisfaction and sacrifice, and it’s perhaps the performance that best defines Jimmy Stewart’s sincerity and charm. It’s a Wonderful Life actually wasn’t widely beloved upon its release, but it is now. Thank God (and his angel Clarence) for that.
Harry Potter was actually an enormous critical success, on the whole. Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is one of the best reviewed franchise films of all time, and that’s at least partially because of the enormous burden the movie had. This is the film tasked with ending a franchise that spanned a decade, and it had to satisfy fans who had read the books and those who hadn’t.
Fortunately, Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is everything every fan could have possibly wanted. It’s a fitting climax to the series, one that understands the weight of the story its telling, and the emotions that drive it. Harry Potter is ultimately a story about the way love, and only love, can outstrip every other feeling and event that life throws at us. This message clearly resonated with critics and audiences, and made the Boy Who Lived into an icon whose legacy is still strong today.
In many ways, The Wizard of Oz was the first fantasy film. The story of Dorothy’s adventure into Oz is still remembered today, and that kind of legacy comes at least in part from the wholeness of the film’s vision. The story of Dorothy’s adventures in this mystical realm are still enchanting viewers today, even without the explosions that so many are accustomed to.
The Wizard of Oz decided to use brilliant storytelling to make the world of Oz a believable one. Even the simple shift from a black and white world to one filled with color signifies the visual wonder of Oz, even in today's age of advanced CGI, it's overwhelming to the viewer. Really, though, The Wizard of Oz is a fairy tale, and a beautiful one at that. The response to the film was incredibly positive upon release, earning it a Best Picture nomination in perhaps the most stacked year ever (Gone With the Wind won), and making it a classic even today.