There’s an elite class of fantasy movie that presents beautiful and unknown worlds, captivating characters, and compelling stories that touch on what it means to be human.
Unfortunately, you’ll never get people to watch them, because they saw one of the ten fantasy movies that ruined it for the rest of us. If they’ve seen three or more of the movies on this list they’ve probably sworn off fantasy for life, and deep in your heart you know you can’t blame them.
Since 1978 these movies have been sneaking into the cinema lexicon like internet slang into the Oxford English Dictionary. Each lives on as the punch line of bad-movie jokes; each one is guilty of perpetuating fantasy stereotypes, mangling its source material, or generally sucking.
Franjean: I stole the baby from you, Daikini! While you were taking a peepee!
Admit it, you cringed. This fourth-rate Lord of the Rings knockoff followed diminutive farmer Willow Ufgood — who’s not a Hobbit, okay?! He’s a Daikini! Damn, stop jumping to conclusions — who finds a magical ring baby and has to go on a quest with some of his friends to return the ring baby before evil finds them all! On the way they run into an American swordsman, two badly blue-screened brownies, Scarlett O’Hara and that super-phallic two-headed monster that scarred a generation of kids.
Sadly, given all of that, Willow is perhaps most memorable for its unironic use of Val Kilmer as a medieval hero. In a movie that featured magical babies, talking goats, and bird poop, that’s saying something.
Legolas Greenleaf: What a people you dwarves are for hiding things! You say ‘Speak, friend, and enter’, yet no word in any language will open the door.
Lord of the Rings was a genre-defying literary success. This animated train wreck single-handedly knocked it into the provenance of dorm-dwelling nerdwads, who were the only fans loyal enough to watch potato-faced hobbits and warriors in fuzzy miniskirts join forces with Galadriel (modeled after a praying mantis) and a Samwise Gamgee who delivers all his lines like he’s moments away from calling for George to look after his rabbits. The breakneck pace did nothing to actually propel the story forward, and the characters seemed to be melting under the pressure. Literally.
If you saw this movie, I can only hope you were stoned. The good news is, even if you weren’t, after about half an hour it felt like you were.
Harry Canyon: Ah, kiss my ass!
Hooker: I will for twenty bucks.
Speaking of animated train wrecks, remember when fantasy was poorly-plotted, misogynist wish-fulfillment porn designed to appeal to sexually-repressed social outcasts? Yeah, me too.
Lee Scoresby: Are you gonna join in the turkey shoot?
It sounded like a great idea: with the CGI technology available to make believable talking animals, and a Harry Potter-reading audience eager to devour other fantasy, the time was ripe for an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s sweeping fantasy trilogy. Unfortunately, trying to pack a pound of plot into a four-ounce movie means there was a lot of CGI and not much of Pullman’s character-focused humanist philosophy. Cutting it down meant that fans of the books were left asking, “What happened to that scene?” and casual viewers asking only, “What?”
After this movie’s lackluster box office, the studio has stalled on a sequel, which is a shame for anyone who expected a resolution to the cliffhanger ending. (Try the books!)
Merlin: STAND BACK! [“O Fortuna”]
This bombastic King Arthur adaptation blew its wad on casting every up-and-coming British actor it could get its hands on, including Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Corin Redgrave, and Patrick Stewart. This meant they could only afford one piece of music (“O Fortuna“) and played it every three minutes for two hours.
Not that anyone noticed much of anything over the shouting; everyone in Excalibur had “Talks loudly and forcefully” delivered in their character notes, and the constant ear-shattering dialogue drained dramatic moments and the audience’s patience. It also did no favors to the choppy script, which tried to make the movie into both classic cinema and historical soap opera and failed at both, cementing this story as untranslatable to modern audiences. A recent adaptation featuring a belt-clad Kiera Knightley has done nothing to dispel this idea.
Nancy: You know, in the old days, if a witch betrayed her coven, they would kill her.
If Excalibur proved that translating fantasy from its original setting is impossible, The Craft proves that making a compelling fantasy for the modern age is just as fraught. This movie starring four witchy young women (and their short plaid skirts) was less worried about the fantasy elements of dark magic then it was in the fantasy of catfights set to alt-rock background music. Any movie where a girl begs dark spirits to make another girl’s hair fall out is an instant classic, you know?
The movie is so Goth-lite that it feels like it was directed by the assistant manager of a Hot Topic, right up to the leitmotif that girls who seek power are horrible dark witches who deserve to be committed to the psych ward. Nice one!
Wiccans everywhere still burn sage to cleanse their TVs every time this airs.
Elise McKenna: There is so much to say… I cannot find the words. Except for these: ‘I love you.’
Time travel was manly enough for H.G. Wells, and dammit, it’s manly enough for Christopher Reeve!
A soft-focus romance with five minutes of plot in a hundred minutes of sap and a climactic twist that involves a penny, Somewhere in Time is a slight but serviceable movie whose biggest claim to fame is the following it inspired. The International Network of Somewhere In Time Enthusiasts (INSITE) holds annual conventions in the movie’s Grand Hotel and includes in its mission statement a delightfully cult-y mandate to “to inform members about all aspects of it and enhance their appreciation of it”. And nothing says “accessible fantasy audience” like a fan club with a mandate!
Jareth: You remind me of the babe.
Goblin: What babe?
Jareth: The babe with the power.
Goblin: What power?
Jareth: The power of voodoo.
Goblin: Who do?
Jareth: You do.
Goblin: Do what?
Jareth: Remind me of the babe.
This movie, an attempt to revive the old-fashioned Through the Looking Glass-style fantasy adventures, hoped to unite a fanciful coming-of-age story with the sort of magic that only a trilling chorus of goblin puppets can provide. However, one questionable decision after another (I’m looking at you, David Bowie’s tights!) meant that the movie ended up as the tale of a Mary Sue who is totally misunderstood by her parents, God! and ends up ripping the heads off furry marionettes in the middle of a sexual awakening.
This is another movie that’s less famous for its mediocre musical numbers than for its fans’ slavish devotion to puffy-sleeve ball gowns, puppet caterpillars, and the jailbait-stalky glory of David Bowie in an owl-feather cape and skintight beige leggings.
Arya: Eragon… I’m Arya, princess of Ellesmera. You’re the only one who can save me.
Just when the world was crying out for a third-rate Tolkien rip-off, Christopher Paolini appeared. And no sooner had the cry of “Return of the King is out of theaters!” than a very clever producer snapped his fingers and said, “By God, get that other trilogy out in theaters immediately! See if John Malkovich is busy.”
Turns out John Malkovich wasn’t busy. Neither were Jeremy Irons, Robery Carlyle, Rachel Weisz, or Djimon Hounsou, all of whom must have lost a hell of a hand of cards to end up in this clunker, which seems to have picked the pockets of a dozen other movies and used the scraps to piece together a Ye Olde Starr Warres, heavily sauced with Middle-Earth. It did no favors for a genre often looked down upon as derivative or obsessed with sword and sorcery, and even those who recognized the movie as a Dungeons and Dragons game gone wrong were too ashamed to go see it.
Good news, though: they’re not making the other two.
Edward Cullen: You are my life now.
Remember when fantasy was poorly-plotted, misogynist wish-fulfillment porn designed to appeal to sexually-repressed social outcasts? Yeah, me too.