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10 Overlooked Fantasy Films That You Probably Didn’t See

Fantasy is so often rigidly defined and cornered into just Swords and Sorcery films. It can be so much more and so much more, well, fantastic! Instead of offering you ten of the best films, or any arbitrary ranking, I'm offering instead ten films that sometimes get overlooked as fantasy. It might broaden the spectrum of what it is we call fantasy and what is under the realm of the fantastical.

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Fantasy is often listed as merely swords and sorcery. This is not to say it isn’t considered a serious cinematic force in the world. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy as well as Game of Thrones have helped catapult fantasy into the popular imagination, certainly, but often to a detriment. There seems to be a growing divide between what we call Fantasy and the Fantastical, although of course, they are the same thing. What we do see is a rigid definition of what we call a work of fantasy, though. Swords and Sorcery, political intrigue, and sweeping epics, trilogies, shows, and so forth. I wish to propose an alternative to this. Instead, let us look at another way to view fantasy and the fantastical that doesn’t involve something necessarily rooted in Middle Earth. In this case, I wish to express ten fantasies that are overlooked, or not always considered works of fantasy. I’m defining this as something that cannot happen in the modern world, something a bit more whimsical, and maybe something that sparks the imagination, or has its basis in science fiction and horror.


Fantasy can be surreal and not so rooted in, ironically, gritty realism. These may not always be commercially appealing, however, they offer another view of a genre that sometimes is mired in more of the same. For the purposes of this list, I am going to limit myself to one director per film. I also do not wish to rank these, so not to say one is superior to another.

1. Tideland [2005] | Director: Terry Gilliam 

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Perhaps this is a controversial first choice. While Gilliam’s other incredible work of fantasy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988),  may fit the bill it feels as if its cult status has not earned it an overlooked position. Tideland (2005), on the other hand, is ripe for rediscovery. This may be the most challenging of Gilliam’s films. Tideland is an often brutal work of art that challenges the viewer to examine the story from multiple perspectives. Gilliam opens the film encouraging us to see the film from the eyes of a child, a feat that is almost impossible and excruciating, at times absolutely horrifying. Some may argue that this does belong more in the category of horror, and I wouldn’t disagree. However, as a work of fantasy, it cannot be denied the power of imagination as well as the effect of trauma and agony. The film itself is shot from the perspective of the heroine, Jeliza Rose, and we are encouraged to see it from her fragmented and dreamlike mind. It’s a work of beauty. It’s fantastical elements capture a challenging imagination that rewards the viewer for sticking with it if one can endure its nightmares.


2. THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T [1953] | Director: Roy Rowland

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Delightfully lead by a maniacal Hans Conreid, this film floats through a dreamscape of atomic energy, a piano instructor seemingly modeled after Mussolini, and plans for world domination. Written by Dr.Suess, it remains the only film he wrote that wasn’t based on a previous work and its failure to garner attention discouraged him from pursuing the medium much farther. Still, it’s a zany, delightful romp through what is essentially a dream. It pushes the boundaries of live-action fantasy, especially for the 1950’s. This film falls much more under the realm of the whimsical, but it delightfully glides through the tropes of a Dr. Suess story, though more anarchic than maybe he imagined.


3. THE LADIES MAN [1961] | Director: Jerry Lewis

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Any number of Jerry Lewis films might fill this spot. Yet, how can one deny the sheer impressiveness of Lewis’ set? A massive, labyrinthine set that fits more in a children’s pop-up book, or a dollhouse, than anything set in reality. The film is more or less a series of vignettes that become more and more outlandish the longer Lewis’ Herbert H. Heebert remains working at this all-girls boarding home. The only segment of the film that seems grounded in reality is the very beginning of the film, and from that point on Lewis ramps up the silliness, the hilarity, and of course the fantasy.  Its silliness is only punctuated more and more by the fantastical elements, used instead to go for laughs and spectacle over commentary, though not lacking in any innovation.


4. COONSKIN [1975] | Director: Ralph Bakshi


Ralph Bakshi may have actually directed films that fit more into the traditional fantasy film, but Coonskin goes for broke. A reworking of the Uncle Remus tales, set in Harlem, Bakshi plays upon our very idea of the American myth. Tackling Americana, he plays with imagery of the American Dream as well as the mythologies and images we’ve built for ourselves to remain safe and secure. He also chooses to re-imagine Black tales in order to examine and poke holes in the various political and social dynamics of America in the 1970’s, even for today. He aided in breaking open a wall allowing for, perhaps, more black lead works of fantasy that, sadly, do not have the accessibility of some of the other films on this list. One can hope though.


5. THE HOLY MOUNTAIN [1971] | Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Jodorowsky was bound to pop up in this list. I feel this choice is limited in my having only seen a handful of his films, loving all of them but limited in what was available. Still, this journey through spirituality, chaos magic, alchemy, and meta-fiction is just the deviation from the norm that fantasy asks of us. It is a demanding film that builds slowly, delivering entire biographies of the major players in the film and every symbol they represent. It is more interested in ideas, concepts, and philosophizing than it is to tell a narrative story. Still, it’s a cacophony of sights to behold. Everything from a man molded into Jesus figures, to turning feces into gold.  A truly religious countercultural film, a truly fantastical movie that encourages us to look deeper in ourselves as well as within a genre and what film itself is.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Jodorowsky and Lynch Go Boating

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