Labyrinth, Excalibur, Sandman and more: Behold the 20 ultimate fantasy movies and TV series

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We embarked on an epic quest to find the mightiest fantasy tales ever screened. Lo, here is our top 20, in reverse order

It’s a case of man bun on the run as Henry Cavill returns for his final season as the star of Netflix’s The Witcher this month. Cavill will then hang up his double broadswords, with Liam Hemsworth inheriting the iconic role as the monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia. It won’t be the same without Cavill. But despair not, as a trove of fantasy already exists to enjoy. Here’s our countdown of the ultimate fantasy movies and TV shows from ancient times – the 1970s – right up to the present.


Dungeons & Dragons: The Animated Series (1983-85)

If the 1980s were a heyday for fantasy, they were also a high-water mark for Saturday-morning cartoons. The genres came together perfectly in this short-lived D&D series, part of the game’s attempt to expand beyond nerd-dom. The strategy didn’t work, but it did leave us with this ripping series and the proto-Michael D Higgins apparition of Dungeon Master.


Highlander (1986)

There can be only one No 19 on our list, and it must go to Highlander, a fantastically silly tale of warrior immortals, in which Christopher Lambert played a Scotsman with a French accent, and Sean Connery was a Spaniard with a Scottish one. Smashing – as is the Queen soundtrack.


Labyrinth (1986)

David Bowie was never more Bowie-esque than when portraying Jareth, the goblin king, in Jim Henson’s second stab at fantasy. Labyrinth was a flop, as was The Dark Crystal (see 5, below), but its legacy has lived on. It introduced the world to Jennifer Connolly, playing Sarah, a teenager on the trail of the baby brother whom Jareth kidnaps. Bowie’s soundtrack has been rehabilitated recently, while the film’s dreamlike look influenced series four of Stranger Things.



Dragonslayer (1981)

As Calvin Harris might observe, big-budget fantasy was acceptable in the 1980s. Until Game of Thrones, the high-water mark for on-screen dragons was set by the director Matthew Robbins and his tale of a young wizard on the trail of the destructive dragon Vermithrax. The dragon is the star: created by George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, Vermithrax flaps, crawls and roars just like the real thing.


Princess Mononoke (1997)

Studio Ghibli could take up half of this list. To pick just one of its films, the Japanese animation powerhouse’s epic period drama Princess Mononoke is full of sweeping battles, unsettling monsters and wrathful gods – everything you could want from fantasy.


Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978)

Before Peter Jackson discovered Tolkien, the portal to Middle-earth for The Lord of the Rings director was Ralph Bakshi’s never-completed cartoon. With money running out, the second half of the film is flakier than Gollum on his way to see Shelob. But its depiction of Frodo and the hobbits’ flight to the Ford is compulsive, and Bakshi astutely recognises the Nazgûl as horrific monsters as much as baddies. He is also ahead of his time in having John Hurt voice an Aragorn drawn as a Native American.


Ladyhawke (1985)

Michelle Pfeiffer was never more magnificent than when debuting her platinum bob haircut in Ladyhawke, Richard Donner’s medieval fantasy. She is Isabel of Anjou, a noblewoman who gives up her privileged life to elope with Captain of the Guard Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer). Unfortunately, an evil bishop curses them – he becomes a wolf by night, and she is a hawk by day (yes, a “lady ... hawk”). Enter Matthew Broderick as a young thief who makes it his mission to break the curse and unite them. Fantastic – even allowing for the thunderously tinny 1980s soundtrack.


The NeverEnding Story (1984)

The memory of Wolfgang Peterson’s most expensive movie is tainted by its association with the underwhelming final episode of season three of Stranger Things (when plot contrivances led to Dustin belting out the Limahl theme). But let’s forget about that and rewind to 1984, when this German blockbuster terrified a generation of kids, thanks to the vicious wolf Gmork and the Swamps of Sadness, where trusty steed Artax essentially dies of depression. The original Michael Ende novel is even sadder and weirder – but Peterson’s tilt at the story is perfectly respectable.


Sandman (2022)

As with Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, this adaptation of the Neil Gaiman comic books is fresh in the memory. But it also achieves the impossible by bringing to life Gaiman’s genre-hopping tale of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. Jumping from horror to period thriller via urban fantasy, it captures the magic of the Sandman and is a worthy follow-up to Neverwhere, Gaiman’s mid-1990s BBC series.


Robin of Sherwood (1984-86)

The haunting soundtrack is one of finest moments of Clannad, the Donegal trad band. Beyond the music, Richard Carpenter’s folk-horror take on Robin Hood drills into the ancient English psychosphere with its cameo by Herne the Hunter. The Devil himself has a guest spot, too, appearing in the two-parter The Swords of Wayland, where the Nazgûl-esque Hounds of Lucifer attend to him.


The Green Knight (2021)

Frequent commuters on the M4 into Dublin may have been surprised to see the “Wonderful Barn” that looms just outside Celbridge cameo as a witches’ haven in David Lowery’s astonishing tilt at Arthurian myth. Filmed mainly in Co Wicklow, The Green Knight captures the reality-warping weirdness of the great medieval stories. But the portrait of a noble warrior (Dev Patel) seeking meaning from the world also speaks to life as we live today. Its ultimate message that it is better to do the right thing than to be self-serving is powerfully resonant.


Coraline (2009)

“She’s as cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on ... Coraline.” As with the original Neil Gaiman novel about a curious young girl who meets her “Other Mother” in a parallel universe, Henry Selick’s movie is both dream and a nightmare. The stop-motion animation brings little Coraline to life as a tomboyish heroine. But then we meet the “Other Mother” (voiced by Teri Hatcher), who will give Coraline her heart’s desire if only she agrees to replace her eyes with buttons. Nightmare fuel has never gone down more wholesomely.


The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Any of a number of scary cartoons from the early 1980s could have featured on this list: Disney’s The Black Cauldron; the gory adaptation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down; Peter Beagle’s retelling of his novel The Last Unicorn. But if there is room for just one, it has to be Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, about a brave widowed mouse, Mrs Brisby, and the eerily intelligent rats to which her late husband has a mysterious connection.


Excalibur (1981)

“There’s something about filming in Ireland. You wouldn’t have the same effect if it was in England,” the Game of Thrones star Charles Dance told me when I visited the set in 2011. The haunting quality of the Irish landscape – all that sorrow seeped into the marrow of the countryside – certainly made its presence felt on Thrones. But even more so on Excalibur, John Boorman’s version of the foundational British myth of King Arthur re-created at Cahir Castle, Powerscourt Waterfall and elsewhere around the country. Boorman foreshadows Game of Thrones, with Excalibur and Thrones both retelling the tale of the Fisher King and the idea that the kingdom’s wellbeing is linked to the king’s.


Krull (1983)

One of the significant trends in fantasy from the 1990s has been to go dark and gritty. You can see it in Game of Thrones and best-sellers such as Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. But the finest fantasy needs a little cheese dabbed on its soul, and that’s what you get with Krull, a riotous adventure set on a planet plagued by the monstrous Beast and his servants, the Slayers. Bonus marks for the fantastic soundtrack by James Horner, which was so good he reused segments of it on Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. And look out for the fledgling Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane as a pair of axe-wielding henchmen.


The Dark Crystal (1982)

To paraphrase the introduction to Conan the Barbarian, the 1980s were “an age undreamed of” for fantasy on the screen. Among the most memorable epics to hit the multiplex was Jim Henson’s bleakly gorgeous The Dark Crystal. As if it were a hellish flipside of The Muppets, Henson brought forth a baroque fantasy universe full of clicking-clacking crab monsters, vulture-like Skeksis and the shy Gelfling. To watch The Dark Crystal was to enter a fairy tale made flesh – and while the film flopped (and a Netflix prequel vanished without a trace in 2019), its legacy endures.


Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves (2023)

It’s just a few months old, but this quippy take on the classic fantasy tabletop game deserves a place at the high table. Starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith and Sophia Lillis as a band of vaguely competent warriors, Honour Among Thieves is rip-roaring fun. But it also re-creates wonderfully the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons with your pals. When Xenk, Regé-Jean Page’s holy warrior, explains a complicated underground puzzle to the adventurers, and they just blunder through doing their own thing, I was swept back to every D&D campaign I’d ever played. Bonus points to Hugh Grant for channelling Boris Johnson as the bloviating villain Forge Fitzwilliam.


Game of Thrones (2011-19)

Anyone who grew up on fantasy in the 1980s and early 1990s will have been astonished to see George RR Martin’s back-stabbing saga become a global obsession. Targaryen T-shirts, the Red Wedding becoming a metaphor for ambitious treachery, “Hold the Door” trending on Twitter – it was as if nerds had come into their kingdom. It couldn’t last, and Game of Thrones’s bubble had burst long before the disastrous final season. Nor has the series necessarily weathered the years well. Its giddy use of sexual violence as a plot device has aged particularly badly. But when Game of Thrones was firing on all pistons, it was unsurpassable. Think back to how emotional you felt when Tyrion saved King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater or the Night King eyeballing Jon Snow at Hardhome.


Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

Peter Jackson brings thrillingly to life not just the epic sweep but also the sadness and horror of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. His take on Tolkien doesn’t so much replicate the original works as channel them into a new medium. Starting with a goose-bump-inducing voiceover from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel – “but they were all of them deceived ...” – Jackson’s films enhanced our enjoyment of the original tale of brave hobbits, Dark Riders and mysterious wizards.


Conan the Barbarian (1982)

What is best in life? How about a full-throated adaptation of Robert E Howard’s tale of the hulking warrior-philosopher, starring a peak-of-his-powers Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by the maverick John Milius – topped off with an unsurpassable Basil Poledouris soundtrack. Conan the Barbarian is the perfect blend of pretension and brawn. It opens with a Nietzsche quote while the story orbits the idea of “the riddle of steel” and the concept that adversity makes us stronger. But it also features Schwarzenegger’s Conan punching a camel and wrestling a giant rubber snake. In other words, it’s a film that scores on every metric. A 1984 sequel, Conan the Destroyer, strays too far into comedy. Fans continue to hold out hope that Schwarzenegger can return to Howard’s world with the much-talked-about third in a trilogy, King Conan.

Season three of The Witcher begins streaming on Netflix on Thursday, June 29th

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics