Friday Five: Five Fantastic Standalone Fantasy Films

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Welcome to Friday Five, a column dedicated to all things pop culture. Every week, we’ll put together five recommendations for you from the worlds of film, television, books and music, each curated to a different theme.

There’s certainly a place for epic fantasy franchises. Harry Potter conquered the world of both literature and film over the course of seven books and eight movies. And Peter Jackson’s definitive adaptation of The Lord of the Rings could keep a fantasy fan busy for an entire day as it covers the full trilogy over the course of nine hours, plus whatever supplementary material you may want to explore. However, sometimes what you want out of a movie isn’t something that will put your butt to sleep or bore your kids, but a story that tells you everything it needs to in a single outing.

For those of us with shorter attention spans (or, at least, considerably less time on our hands), here are five great fantasy films that you can watch all on their own.

5. The Last Unicorn (1982)

A unicorn isolated in a remote forest discovers that she may be the last of her kind. Determined to find out what may have happened to the rest of the unicorns, she sets out on a journey that will irrevocably change her and the companions she finds along the way.

Peter Beagle’s novel of the same name has often been touted as a fairy tale for adults, not so much for its violence or sexuality – of which there is little – but for its themes of loss, aging and letting go. This Rankin/Bass animated adaptation works hard to keep those elements front and center, ably assisted by a talented voice cast, including Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee and Jeff Bridges. The film itself struggles a bit with a limited budget, and the times it ventures into pseudo-Disney princess territory stick out for being so at odds with the rest of its tonal atmosphere, but the movie overall still captures the melancholy and beauty of the original story while serving up some unique visual flourishes.

4. Ghost (1990)

Sam Wheat’s (Patrick Swayze) life seems to be perfect: he has a job he enjoys, a fiancé he adores and a classic apartment he’s restoring. But all of that changes in an instant, when a seemingly random mugging abruptly leaves him cut off from the world of the living and the woman he loves.

Ghost is one of those films which has so seeped into the pop culture consciousness via refence and parody, it often feels more like a satire of itself than a real movie. That said, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable re-watch, a capital-R romance that never short-shrifts its fantasy world-building. Whoopi Goldberg more or less steals every scene she’s in, absolutely earning her Oscar, while Swayze is compelling as Sam grows increasingly desperate and vengeful in his attempts to reconnect with the living. And yes, that pottery scene still maintains its surprisingly effective eroticism.

3. Princess Mononoke (1997)

After a run-in with a dying boar spirit leaves Ashitaka poisoned, the young prince must travel away from his ancestral home in search of a cure. What he finds instead is a clash between old gods and new technology, with a mysterious young woman named San at the center of the conflict.

Hayao Miyazaki is probably best-known in the US for his gentle, family-friendly fare such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away. However, Princess Mononoke should not be mistaken for a kid’s movie; this is a bloody medieval fantasy set in a complex world without heroes or villains, only men and beasts who commit great harm against each other in the name of protecting what’s theirs. The film looks beautiful even in its goriest scenes and contains some of Miyazaki’s most stunning creature designs. But it’s really the bittersweet themes and complicated relationships that ensure the film stands out, even among the many other notable works of this animation master.

2. The Shape of Water (2017)

Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a shy, mute cleaning woman working in a secretive government facility, finds herself entranced by the newest resident of the bunker: an amphibious fish-man (Doug Jones) who has found himself at the mercy of an obsessed government agent (Michael Shannon).

After years of growing up on such films as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Guillermo del Toro dared to ask: but what if the kidnapped woman actually really dug the fish monster? While The Shape of Water openly embraces its B-movie origins, it doesn’t try to flatten out its story into a simple tale of square-jawed hero vs. mysterious creature but instead uses its period setting and central romance to explore the ways assumptions and bigotry end up damaging those who are different and destroying the souls of those who refuse to grow out of their prejudice. It’s also a film that was going to be broken or made on the strength of Hawkins’ and Jones’ performances; that they effectively pulled off a compelling romance, with one character never speaking and another buried underneath a foot’s worth of prosthetics, shows what a remarkable feat del Toro truly pulled off.

1. Doctor Sleep (2019)

Years after his father attempted to kill him in an isolated Colorado hotel, Dan Torrence (Ewen McGregor) finds himself wrestling with both old and new demons. But a strange connection to Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), a young girl who possesses psychic gifts similar to his own, has him realizing that there’s only so long you can run from your past.

Admittedly, Doctor Sleep isn’t completely a standalone film, as it’s actually a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But it almost entirely departs from the horror genre to take up residence in urban fantasy instead, massively expanding the world building of both the original film and novel. As a result, the movie is sometimes a bit wobbly, trying to serve two masters as both sequel and adaptation – as the film and book version of The Shining have radically different endings – and some characters getting short shrift on screen. That said, it has one of the most delightful villains of the last decade in Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose the Hat (a Stephen King name if there ever was one) and a thoughtful, sad tone once it stops trying so hard to ape Kubrick’s style. A definite watch if you’re looking for something dark and moody without the scares.

And that’s our five for the week. Any other fantasy films out there that you enjoy that don’t feature boy wizards or hobbits? Comment below and let us know!

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Amanda Koprowski
Amanda Koprowski

Amanda Koprowski spent nearly ten years working in non-profits and community organizations before deciding to pursue a career in her primary passion, writing. She previously worked as an editor for Drama Around the Globe, ABF Journal and Monitor, having written and edited articles on such eclectic topics as Marxist actors, women in equipment financing and lawyers who specialize in turnaround management for troubled companies. She currently contributes articles to 4b.world. Amanda lives in Philadelphia, with two cats, several bottles of wine and an embarrassing number of books.

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