No matter how much we were looking forward to it, it looks like Alice in Wonderland is the flattest 3D movie ever made. The visuals are stunning, but the characters are sort of just there, standing around hoping that something interesting will happen eventually. Something the audience can relate to.
So, as a public service, I’d like to offer 12 other fantasy films to visit instead.
The genre is a difficult to pin down, but one element that I’ve always enjoyed (call it the Fantasy Travel subgenre) is when the audience gets to discover a strange new world alongside a totally normal character who is, for some reason, destined for greatness.
We want to revel in the splendor of the world, have our jaws ripped down to the floor by everything around us, to meet different characters to fall in love with. All of these films deliver something get to behold while managing to tell a fantastic story.
Check your bags at the gate, review the emergency exit qualifications, and make sure your giant dragons are in their full upright and locked positions.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The film prototype, the enduring legacy of sending a plain young girl off into a crazy, colorful world. There are anthropomorphic scarecrows, flying monkeys, and an evil witch that continues to cause nightmares. It’s a classic, timeless example of the genre.
Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Yes, I’m suggesting you watch Alice in Wonderland instead of Alice in Wonderland. Things get confusing in the fantasy world, especially when you’re dealing with upside down rooms and drinks that make you smaller. The animated version doesn’t have the same brand of eye candy that the CGI update has, but the story is far better (even if it’s still miles away from the book).
The Phantom Tollbooth (1970)
I admit that the animation is not exactly mind-blowing, but the world on the other side of the tollbooth is downright captivating. Milo faces every obstacle that we face in our bored lives to an exact degree, whether it’s the Lethargarians or the Terrible Trivium – learning that not sleeping around all day is the key to success. While the lesson of the film may be completely untrue, it’s still a great journey that Chuck Jones and the usual Looney Tunes crew takes us on. Plus, there’s learning. The kids love the learning.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
The specific achievement of this film is that the main character doesn’t leave the attic at his school for the bulk of the story, but experiences the fantasy land through a book. That’s a pretty tough thing to translate to film, but director Wolfgang Peterson manages brilliantly while introducing all of us to The Rockbiter, Atreyu, and Falkor.
The lesson here is not to wish for your baby brother to be stolen by a Goblin King. Sarah faces a ton of strange creatures and situations, giving us an iconic Bog of Eternal Stench and Giant Codpiece of David Bowie. Sidenote: did anyone else notice the huge age difference between the main character and that baby? You can’t tell me that kid wasn’t a surprise.
Here’s a great example of how to take a known fantastical universe and display it in a new way. Oddly enough, there hadn’t been a live-action version of the original Peter Pan story when this was made, so it stood out as an original story instead of a re-hash. In doing so, it actually created some great characters that were shown in a fresh light, and caused my college friends to yell “Bangarang!” after taking tests.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Creating a fantasy world is no easy task, especially when that world is the afterlife. Robin Williams’s Chris is a normal schlub who crosses over into an idyllic field and learns that he’s actually, totally dead. And his wife is, too! Time to discover some breathtaking, surreal scenery with Cuba Gooding Jr who promises to “Show Him the Barren Wasteland of Human Souls Forever Tormented By Their Own Sins!” He had us at Barren Wasteland.
The Matrix (1999)
With all of the black clothing, you’d think Tim Burton saw the film and slapped his forehead wishing he’d done it. It’s a cyber-age fantasy where a programmer leaves this world behind and heads for this world. It just turns out that this world is made up of pixels, and people can jump from building to building if they feel like it. Science fiction, yes, but there’s no denying the rabbit hole that Neo goes down into fantasy land.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
There’s no other film in modern times that has taken a normal little boy and built a more complex, rich, magical (that’s right, I said it) world than this film. In each subsequent film, even when Harry has gotten used to being a wizard, he still never really outgrows the awe he experiences whenever he sees something new, and neither does the audience.
Spirited Away (2001)
Miyazaki is a master of fantasy storytelling, and here might be his best work. At least it’s the best story he tells involving a plain little girl traveling to a dangerous new world inhabited by spirits, cranky old grandmas and giant babies. Not only is there incredibly imagery, there are true challenges to face and danger around every corner. And pig parents.
The Fall (2006)
Once again we have an example of a film where the main character is transported completely through story – this time, the tale told by Roy Walker. The main achievement here is that director Tarsem Singh uses our own world and its sometimes alien-like beauty to create a fantasy world of black bandits, Indians, and epic personal adventure.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
As you can tell, labyrinths are pretty popular in the fantasy world, and this film does a phenomenal job of not only placing our young heroine in the new world of wartime Spain, but also in the new world of scary goat men that want her to put root babies under beds.