Like many of us growing up, fantasy was a magical form of escapism. Their magical worlds and subliminal wonders are things that we’ll never forget, especially in the fantasy films that will always form a fond part in growing up. Here are a handful of them from our writers.
Hook (1991), dir. Steven Spielberg
Following the story of a now grown Peter Pan who has to return to Neverland to save his children from the bloodthirsty titular pirate, Captain James Hook, with Robin Williams injecting all his charm in the lead role, it’s one of my favourite fantasy films, even if the critical consensus don’t necessarily agree with me. Firstly, I dreamed of being able to join in on that iconic food fight (frankly, my 20 year old self still wants it), and I fell in love with every single character. From Lost Boys Rufio (Dante Basco who also voiced my favourite character, Zuko, from Avatar: The Last Airbender) and Tootles; to Tinkerbell the Fairy and Thud Butt. On its surface, Hook is merely about Peter Pan coming back home but on a deeper level, it’s about a man’s relationship with his children, and the importance of family and love over work. The film is just magical, to put it in a word, which sounds really cheesy but it’s true. This is helped, of course, by John Williams’s beautiful score as its emotional rises and falls became the defining soundtrack of my childhood. Hook is not a perfect film by any means, but to me, it captures a magical feeling that I’ve never seen encapsulated anywhere else.
Jumanji (1995), dir. Joe Johnston
There are very few films that can pull off the film-based-on-a-game, but 1995 release Jumanji decides to change this up by having the film centred around a supernatural board game; as much as this is being classed under “kids fantasy film” – this is not child-friendly in the slightest. Compared to Robin Williams’ other films like Aladdin and Mrs Doubtfire, this is dark and full of nightmare fuel with the myriad of ways children are put into danger with its tricks and challenges. Alan was stuck inside the game for twenty-six years being hunted by Van Pelt, and from what we’re shown in the film, it is tame.
Jumanji was the first film I watched as a kid that starred Robin Williams, and it’s something that I rewatched over and over again. For a film to count as “fantasy” doesn’t mean it needs to be set somewhere mystical like Neverland, but applied to a modern and real setting. The CGI might appear a little dated now, but Jumanji’s narrative journey remains strong.
Labyrinth (1986), dir. Jim Henson
Any film featuring David Bowie’s music and the man himself, who plays the eldritch and mysterious Goblin King Jareth, is going straight to my heart as an all time classic. I owe my dad for raising me on 70s and 80s pop culture, as Labyrinth is a film that I fondly remember watching on Saturday nights and, despite knowing the story like the back of my hand, it still took my 12 year old self by surprise which amplified the film’s irresistible magic. Whilst sometimes it lapses into absurdity and verbose events, it’s exactly what an 80s fantasy should be: a narrative so ludicrous and unique that it has you laughing and shaking your head in disbelief.
Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie are the only ‘human’ characters in the entire film; the rest is full of goblins and creatures that are (in Jim Henson fashion) all puppets who have striking appearances to actual living beings. My 10 year old self was terrified of being kidnapped by the goblins and being held hostage; clearly I had little common sense as a child. But it’s still an incredibly nostalgic film for me that brings back childhood memories and the irrational fear of being whisked away to a magical fantastical Labyrinth with David Bowie at the centre. That I would die for.
Peter Pan (2003), dir. P. J. Hogan
Undoubtedly in my mind, the best version of Peter Pan that has ever hit screens was the 2003 classic. Not only was it a personal favourite for its childhood fantasy elements, but also one that could be constantly re-watched as it helped prepare those same childhood brains for later life.
Based on J.M. Barrie’s titular play of the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan managed to bring the story to life with its stellar cast, and spooky dramatic settings. It also featured Jeremy Sumpter as the eponymous hero, who would later be described as an absolute heartthrob, if our squishy, primary-school-aged minds could muster such thoughts. The child actors in the film were surprisingly really good, and succeeded in convincing us that this kind of magic could be very real. This is by far one of the best known and most beloved fantasy kids films, and is one that should be kept around for a long time, especially after showing us, even now, that all you need is magic, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust.
Big (1988), dir. Penny Marshall
What happens when a child’s wish comes true? What are the consequences? Is it worth it? It’s a simple idea, one that is charmingly explored in Penny Marshall’s 1988 gem Big, where 13-year-old Josh Baskin wishes to be ‘big’ in order to get on a fairground ride. The following morning, he wakes up in the body of Tom Hanks and grapples with being an adult. Watching Big as a child was wonderful: it spoke to the kids who wanted to be grown up whilst remaining immensely fun and funny. Tom Hanks is superb as a young teenager navigating the adult world financially, emotionally and (in a delightfully awkward scene) sexually. But Big’s strength comes from watching it many years later as an adult and finding that the situation has flipped: it makes you wish to go back and be a child. It ensures, as a great fantasy films should, a magical and sometimes nostalgic experience for both parents and their children to have together.