Before Star Wars came out in 1977, George Lucas called animator Ralph Bakshi to ask for a favor. Bakshi agreed to change the name of his new movie Wizard Wars to Wizards in order to prevent his film from accidentally siphoning the box office from a little flick that needed all the help it could get, called Star Wars. Whoops. Wizards has been an also-ran ever since, and that's a shame, because this inventive tale of a post-apocalyptic future in which wizards, fairies and elves go to war against monsters who have dredged up ancient Nazi paraphernalia is a smart, strange and ultimately poignant saga of good vs. evil in its own right.
Terry Gilliam's first feature film outside of Monty Python was a cynical, grungy fantasy about a hapless peasant (Michael Palin) who gets mistaken for a great hero, and who must go to battle against a deadly monster. Gilliam is clearly more interested in mean-spirited comedy than fantasy thrills, which turns off many viewers, but if you go into the film knowing that the monster isn't the important part (at all), you may discover that Jabberwocky is far more entertaining than its reputation suggests.
The first feature-length adaptation of The Hobbit successfully captured the adventure, the humor, the moral, the music and even the entire plot of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy in a scant 90 minutes. Nowadays modern audiences seem to have turned their back on Rankin/Bass's film, largely due to its strange animation style, but if you can get past that, you'll discover that although it lacks the whizz-bang of Peter Jackson's trilogy, this version of The Hobbit is actually the most faithful adaptation to date.
A year after Rankin/Bass's The Hobbit, Ralph Bakshi countered with an ambitious rotoscoped animated adaptation of the first 2/3's of The Lord of the Rings. Running a little over two hours, Bakshi's version cuts quite a bit out of the novels but manages to hit the bullet points with impressive dramatic effect, and arguably adapts several moments and plot elements better than Jackson's films. Bakshi was unable to get the conclusion to his Lord of the Rings off the ground, leading Rankin/Bass to produce an animated The Return of the King in 1980, and it's not bad either, but it's not quite good enough to mention here.
Matthew Robbins' fantasy epic Dragonslayer is best known for Vermithrax Pejorative, still considered by many to be the most impressive-looking dragon ever brought to life on film. (If nothing else, she certainly has the coolest name.) But the movie itself sometimes gets a bum rap, and that's too bad, because it's a lot of fun. Peter MacNicol stars as the cocky apprentice of a great sorcerer. When his master dies unexpectedly, he takes it upon himself to destroy Vermithrax Pejorative, even though he isn't nearly talented enough to hold his own against the behemoth.
The best film ever directed by schlockmeister Albert Pyun (who is most famous for his god awful 1990 Captain America movie), The Sword and the Sorcerer is a deliciously pulpy sword and sorcery yarn about a deposed prince-turned-outlaw, who returns to retake his kingdom from vicious politicians, magicians and monsters. It's extremely violent, completely oversexed, and has a three-pronged broadsword that shoots giant blades like they were arrows. And that's FUN, damn it.
Another underrated fantasy gem from Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., The Flight of Dragons tells the story of a present day writer sent back in time to save a fairy tale world of dragons and sorcerers. The twist is, he accidentally winds up in the body of a dragon, and he can't stop geeking out about it, figuring out firsthand exactly how fire-breathing really functions and so on. The Flight of Dragons has its heart in the right place, and ends with a very clever confrontation between science and magic, but its plot is admittedly far less engaging than its heart-on-sleeve admiration for fantasy lore.
Before they won all the Emmy Awards, HBO was synonymous with "Hey, Beastmaster's On!" As such, Don Coscarelli's slightly dopey, entirely entertaining fantasy adventure wore out its welcome for legions of fans, many of whom now seem to have forgotten how enjoyable it is. Marc Singer plays an adventurer who talks to animals, seduces the sexy Tanya Roberts, saves his people from a wizard and gets chased by a creepy guy in a fetish outfit for no apparent reason.
Ralph Bakshi - who spent a significant portion of his career making underrated fantasy films - returned in 1983 with Fire and Ice, a relatively plotless but sexy and action-packed homage to the fabulous paintings of Frank Frazetta. A hunk in a loin cloth and a Princess in a microkini do battle with monsters, neanderthals and an evil Prince who demands a bride. Fire and Ice is prurient, it's strange, and it's a little hypnotic too.
One of the better King Arthur movies isn't actually about King Arthur. The oft-forgotten Sword of the Valiant stars Sean Connery as a Green Knight who challenges the Knights of the Roundtable, but only a squire named Gawain (Miles O'Keefe) accepts. Gawain beheads the Green Knight, who just picks his head up, puts it back in place and says it's his turn. What follows is a colorfully-filmed push-and-pull between hero and villain, and a very strong adaptation of one of the greatest Arthurian tales.
P.J. Hogan's adaptation of Peter Pan may actually be the best to date, not that anyone actually saw it. A mostly faithful adaptation of J.M. Barrie's story, complete with vibrant production design, thrilling aerial sword fights and Jason Isaacs as the scariest Captain Hook to date, the 2003 version of Peter Pan gets all the excitement, wonder and pathos of the classic story just right.
Hidden away amongst all the cheesy giant monster movies on the Syfy Channel is Fire & Ice (no relation), a pretty darned good fantasy flick about a kingdom under siege by a fire-breathing dragon. Out of options, they decide to awaken an ice-breathing dragon and - to quote the new Godzilla - let them fight. The dialogue is a little stilted, and the cast is a little hit-or-miss, but the special effects are incredible by Syfy standards and the story is cool enough to make it worth a watch for fantasy fans.
One of the better teen fantasy adventure films released in the wake of Harry Potter, Chris Columbus's Percy Jackson is a pretty fun adolescent adventure about the modern day son of Poseidon coming face-to-face with Greek deities and monsters in a contemporary setting. It never quite reaches the emotional heights of the Potter movies, but it's not trying to: Percy Jackson is a just a good old-fashioned PG-13 adventure for kids, and on that level it's a very entertaining flick.
It's strange to think of an Academy Award-winner for Best Animated Feature as "underrated," but many audience members who expected a dashing adventure from Brave went home disappointed, thanks to the unfortunate decision to hide the film's real plot until after the tickets had been sold. A tomboy princess is at odds with her "proper" mother, but their roles are reversed by a spell that turns the Queen into a bear. Now the Queen has to embrace her wild side and the Princess has to take on more mature responsibilities around the castle. When taken for exactly what it is (a fantasy comedy about a mother-daughter relationship), instead of what it's not (Braveheart with a female lead), Brave is actually a very good - albeit very strange - motion picture.