15. “Stardust” (2007)
Between his breakout gangster feature “Layer Cake” and the comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass,” producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn oversaw the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s romantic adventure novel about an impetuous young man who falls in love with a fallen star incarnated in the form of a young woman (an incandescent Claire Danes). The story is a swirl of big fantasy concepts, with witches ready to eat the heart of the fallen star-girl, princes questing for their inheritance, and a lightning-collecting pirate named Shakespeare (Robert De Niro). Graced by a large cast of established stars (Michelle Pfeiffer, De Niro, Peter O’Toole) and featuring early turns from up-and-coming names such as Charlie Cox and Henry Cavill, the film is full nearly to bursting. Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman don’t manage to control every element, and a few false notes sound here and there, but the film’s broad ambition and grand vision are more than compelling enough to make “Stardust” fly well above most film fantasy.
14. “Wolf Children” (2012)
Start any conversation about Japan’s rich animation tradition, and you’ll notice how quickly Mamoru Hosoda‘s name gets drowned out by Miyazaki, Takahata, Kon et al. But with “Wolf Children,” Hosoda makes a compelling case that he should be recognized alongside his more famous peers and major influencers. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age tale about Yuki and Ame, two half-wolf siblings who are brought up in the Japanese countryside by a single mother and who learn how to cope with their ferocious natures. Unfolding with the rhythm of an ancient folktale, “Wolf Children” is one of the most original and underseen animated Japanese fantasies of the century. Not only is the growth of these children, their polarized personalities and their bucolic lifestyle traced with sublime delicacy, but the aesthetics of this film only add to the spell cast by Hosoda. It’s no wonder he comes from an oil painting background; the changing of the seasons and the alluring properties of nature are mystical here.
13. “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)
While dragons keep us on edge every Sunday night on HBO, Dreamworks Animation turned the fire-breathing monsters into the most adorable creatures of 21st century animation. “How to Train Your Dragon” is the story of Viking teenager Hiccup desiring to be a dragon slayer like the rest of his clan, only to realize that befriending dragons comes with better perks. Especially when they’re such fuzzy creatures like the titular trainee Toothless —he’s so damn charismatic and personable that you’d have no problem being his Happy Meal as long as it meant that you got to pet him a bit. Directed by “Lilo & Stitch” duo Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, and loosely based on Cressida Cowell‘s children’s books, ‘Dragon’ did one better than “Shrek,” becoming the studio’s most sophisticated animated franchise (the sequel released last year is also pretty fantastic). One of the keys to its success, beside off the chart charm in every character and scenario, is its purposeful use of 3D. Getting swept up into the screen as Hiccup rides Toothless turns every adult into a kid again. If there’s one thing better than flying, it’s flying on the back of a dragon.
12.“Bridge To Terabithia” (2007)
Unlike other films listed here, “Bridge To Terabithia” is always clear that its fantasy elements are always exactly that: fantasies. But few films in the genre capture its appeal quite in the same way or prove as utterly moving. Based on Katherine Paterson’s well loved novel (co-written by her son) and directed by “Rugrats” creator Gábor Csupó, it’s a coming-of-age tale about 12-year-old Jess (Josh Hutcherson), who forms a friendship with new classmate Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb). The two invent a fantasy kingdom called Terabithia in the woods, but Jess’ hopeless crush on his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel) proves to have tragic consequences. The Disney and Walden Media project hit in the midst of the mania for “Narnia” and co, but its (decent) effects aside, it has more in common with “My Girl” than most of those films, up to and including the devastating ending. But it’s at its best when capturing the way that friendships can be forged through a shared imagination and creativity, and the way that those creations can serve as a memorial.
11. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008)
Superheroes have taken over the mainstream imagination as the cinematic ideal of the fantastical; gods among mortals, displaying superpowers regular people can only dream about. As such, “Thor” was briefly under consideration as the bastion of high fantasy in the superhero genre in this century, but then we remembered a certain moody devil, and suddenly Asgard felt like window dressing. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is the rare sequel that improves on the original, so the fact that Guillermo del Toro swapped the gothic-horror vibe from his first “Hellboy” and delved into fairytale territory in “The Golden Army” serves our purposes here twice as nicely. From the opening stop-motion story of the legendary Golden Army to the textured set-pieces of the Troll Market and the exotically sprawled out Forest God, ‘The Golden Army’ is the greatest example of fun super-heroics mixed in the high fantasy blender. And who better than del Toro and stalwart Ron Perlman (so natural as the titular hero-demon that you’d think he uses prosthetics in all his other roles) to show it all off?