While realism certainly has its place in storytelling, my tastes have always leaned more towards fantasy. It’s partly the escapism, which lets you immerse yourself in a world far away from your problems, and partly the layers of meaning that fantasy lends itself to. Magic and the supernatural can create powerful metaphors for the struggles we face in our everyday lives. There are several fantasy movies, TV shows and books that captured my heart at an early age and shaped my love of the genre. Join me as I take a look back at 10 of my favourites.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (TV Series, 1986-1987)
For a long time, I had no idea that this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books was actually a Japanese anime. It was dubbed into English, edited, and had narration added by Margot Kidder (best known for her role as Lois Lane in the ‘70s and ‘80s Superman films) before airing in English-speaking countries in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The distinctive anime style and ‘80s vibes only add to the magic of this vision of Oz.
When I was barely more than a toddler, this was one of my favourite cartoons, along with Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds and Around the World with Willy Fog. All three are serialised, kid-friendly adaptations of classic novels, and they formed my introduction to epic stories that feature characters embarking on long journeys—a staple of fantasy, though The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the only one that actually has a fantasy plot. I was always desperate to know what would happen in the next episode, and the long-form storytelling certainly held my attention at an age when I was mostly watching simpler, stand-alone cartoons.
I did see The Wizard of Oz movie at around the same age, but I’ve always preferred this lesser-known version. In this retelling, Oz is just that little bit more enchanting, Dorothy is that little bit more relatable, Toto is that little bit more adorable, and the flying monkeys are that little bit less traumatising. It’s The Wizard of Oz you know, but better in every way—at least that’s how it’s always seemed to me.
The Chronicles of Narnia (TV Series, 1988-1990)
Similarly, my favourite version of The Chronicles of Narnia will always be the low-budget BBC TV series that I adored as a child—particularly the first instalment, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This series was intense, and it’s the emotions it brought out that stuck with me, allowing me to overlook—and in time forget—the strange mix of actors in beaver costumes and hand-drawn animation used to portray Narnia’s magical creatures.
Aslan is, of course, the star of the show, and it’s impossible not to love him. Much of the show’s budget was clearly spent on him, and the animatronic lion does feel real in a much more visceral way than the show’s other creatures. As an adult, I’m aware of the religious allegory that C.S. Lewis supposedly wrote into the story, but watching this as a child, all of that went over my head. The scene in which the White Witch and her minions kill Aslan is one of the darkest things I’ve ever witnessed on children’s TV. I found it somehow horrifying and captivating at the same time, and I never forgot it, but I certainly never connected it to the idea of religion or the crucifixion. Instead, it led to a fascination with other mentor characters and dark themes in fantasy.
The series manages to balance out its extreme darkness with the humour and warmth embodied by the beavers, as well as the magical, joyful scenes in which Lucy first discovers Narnia and befriends Mr Tumnus. The White Witch is also memorable, her winter-themed make-up and costume creating an iconic look that’s simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.
The NeverEnding Story (Film, 1984)
The NeverEnding Story is one of those rare childhood favourites that turned out to be even better than I remembered when I rewatched it as an adult. For kids, it’s the perfect fantasy adventure, filled with beautiful visuals. Falkor, the luck dragon who’s more like an adorable puppy than any dragon I’ve ever seen, has to be one of the most lovable characters in ‘80s cinema. Enduringly popular, he feels like a trusted friend—but one who we all wish we could ride on through the clouds, like Atreyu and Bastian do.
The NeverEnding Story gets pretty dark and emotional at times, particularly in the devastating scene where Artax the horse sinks into the Swamps of Sadness. The existential threat of the Nothing is also surprisingly grim for a children’s film. While I always adored the plot and the characterisation, the layers of meaning in The NeverEnding Story went over my head when I watched it as a child. However, as a young adult wondering whether I spent too much time in fantasy worlds, and whether I needed to cure myself of my love of stories in order to have a real life, rewatching this childhood favourite turned out to be exactly what I needed.
Through the framing device of Bastian reading the book, and his interaction with the characters in it, the film shows that fantasy is often what give us the strength and wisdom we need to navigate the real world. Rather than stopping us from participating in our real lives, stories can actually help us to do so more effectively. We see Bastian gaining courage from reading the book, inspired by his admiration of Atreyu’s bravery, and we see him finally standing up to his bullies with Falkor’s help. We’re reminded that we’re watching a movie, just like Bastian is reading a book, and that our lives can be meaningful and compelling, just like Bastian’s is to us—even if we think that all we do is sit around with our head in the clouds.
Through the Dragon’s Eye (TV Series, 1989)
Mention this BBC educational series to any Brit who went to primary school in the ‘90s, and prepare to be squealed at excitedly for the next 10 minutes. Through the Dragon’s Eye was part of the long-running Look and Read series, which was designed to be shown in schools, accompanied by educational exercises. When I was at school, our teachers showed us a few Look and Read series and, while they were all enjoyable, the feverish enthusiasm we all shared for Through the Dragon’s Eye was unmatched.
Admittedly, the universal love for this show might seem perplexing at first glance. It’s a story about some kids helping a dragon named Gorwen to save the magical land of Pelamar. It’s pretty cheesy, with a budget way below The Chronicles of Narnia, which was at least a “real” TV show meant for families to watch at home. Gorwen is a guy in a rubbery dragon costume with T-Rex-like arms and a melodramatic voice, and a lot of the plot revolves around reading and maths.
Despite all this, it is kind of awesome in its own way. Gorwen manages to pull off being a cross between the aforementioned Aslan and Falkor—a cool fantasy creature who acts as both a mentor and a friend to the kids who’ve travelled to another world. All the best elements of fantasy are there—the kids must undertake a quest in a strange land, meeting new friends along the way and having suspense-filled adventures. If you’re a kid watching it, it’s easy to suspend your disbelief, ignore the bad costumes and effects, and get caught up in the story.
Also, context is key. It’s tempting to compare Through the Dragon’s Eye to other fantasy stories, and to see it as a cheesy lesson about maths and reading. Instead, you have to compare it to the boring maths and English lessons we had to sit through every day at school, because that was the context in which we were suddenly presented with this serialised fantasy story about a friendly dragon. That was the context in which, as 7- or 8-year-olds, we were all absolutely blown away by this magical adventure, and that’s how it became one of the most treasured childhood memories for an entire generation of school kids.
Hook (Film, 1991)
Hook is a ‘90s classic, featuring big-name talents ranging from Steven Spielberg to Robin Williams, gorgeous cinematography, and a gripping story that’s actually an improvement on the original source material. Peter Pan as a grown-up trying to save his kids always seemed way more interesting to me than the regular Peter Pan story, and the idea is so well executed. One perfect sequence follows another, and while there may be a few missteps, overall it’s a wonderful movie.
Hook reminds me so much of my youth, which is fitting considering its themes of childhood and growing up. Many of the entries here are from the ‘80s, when I was still pretty young, so I only watched or read them years after they were first released, but I remember going to see 1991’s Hook in the cinema when it came out.
The whole film is very evocative of the early ‘90s. A long section at the beginning takes place in contemporary USA and England, and Peter and his kids are very much “of the time,” even when they’re in Neverland. Hook seems to perfectly capture the world I remember from my childhood—just with added fantasy elements and pirates. I’m even half-American and half-English, just like Peter’s kids, and as a child I often flew between the two countries to visit family, just as they do in the movie.
This is the first—though not the last—entry on this list to include an exceptionally charismatic bad guy, an interesting feature of some of the best fantasy tales. As a kid, I loved Dustin Hoffman as Hook. I guess the younger generations have Jack Sparrow, but for me, Captain Hook was the fascinating, well-dressed, and well-spoken villain who made piracy look cool.
The Jolly Postman or Other People’s Letters and The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Children’s Picture Books, 1986 and 1991)
The Jolly Postman and its sequel, The Jolly Christmas Postman, both revolve around a postman delivering letters to fairy tale characters. The ingenious twist is that the books’ pages are shaped like envelopes, and they contain the very letters the Postman is delivering—as well as magazines, miniature books, a board game, and even a jigsaw puzzle, all of which can be taken out and read or played with. The envelopes, their contents, and the illustrations of the Postman on his journey all include a wealth of fun details for kids to spot.
There’s a lot of overlap between fairy tales and fantasy, with both often featuring magic, royalty, faux-historical settings, and mythical creatures. The genre of “fractured fairy tales” is particularly popular these days, and feels even closer to standard fantasy fare. These are often set in larger “fairy tale worlds,” where multiple fairy tales coexist. Essentially, that’s what The Jolly Postman is. My young mind was blown by what felt like a behind-the-scenes glimpse at these characters’ lives, their world, and their connections to each other.
My obsession with The Jolly Postman was also influenced by a teacher I had when I was 5 or 6. She had us write letters to the characters in the book, and she wrote letters back to us, supposedly from the characters. I sent a birthday card to the Big Bad Wolf. I still have the letter I got back from him, and he seems so sad in it. He thanks me for the card, says that he never gets birthday cards, and explains that he’s having trouble typing because he’s been stung by bees.
I felt so bad for him, and I’ve loved all versions of the fairy tale Big Bad Wolf ever since. I always knew that my teacher wrote the letter, but it still felt magical and special. I’m not entirely sure what her aims were in making the Wolf seem so sympathetic, but I’m pretty sure that letter caused me to develop a lifelong fascination with antiheroes and morally grey characters.
Beauty and the Beast (Film, 1991)
While there’s a lot of overlap between fantasy and fairy tales, there’s also a lot of overlap between fairy tales and Disney movies, and Beauty and the Beast is the perfect link between all three. Growing up, I was even more obsessed with Disney than I was with fantasy. I loved Beauty and the Beast most of all (at least until The Lion King came out), and I was constantly watching it, asking to watch it, and talking about it.
The characters are fantastic. Belle is probably the Disney protagonist I can most relate to, with her own love of fantasy and stories. If you’ve ever lost your temper or felt insecure, you can most likely relate to the Beast too. Lumiere is somehow ridiculously attractive despite being a cartoon candlestick, and he steals every scene he’s in. Gaston is a hilarious and incredibly fun villain with a very catchy song. Mrs Potts and Chip are both adorable and sweet.
The animation is outstanding, and it really brings the magic of the setting to life. Scenes in the library and ballroom show walls of books and windows onto the night sky that seem impossibly tall. At the time I don’t think I’d ever seen animation that beautiful. It makes the castle seem so special, and the same effect simply couldn’t be achieved with live action.
All the best fantasy and Disney staples are there. Apart from the incredible characterisation and animation, there’s the escapism—don’t we all wish we could stay in a magical castle, fall in love, and make friends with talking candlesticks and clocks? There’s a relatable story, as Belle feels like she doesn’t fit in with those around her. There’s adventure and suspense, as Belle first becomes a prisoner, then gets to know the Beast, and eventually tries to save him from an angry mob. And then there’s the humour, tying it all together perfectly.
Labyrinth (Film, 1986)
Of all the entries on this list, Labyrinth is the one that holds up the best, remaining a firm favourite of mine to this day. It combines so many amazing things: the incredible music and effortless cool of David Bowie, the unique artistry and adorable puppetry of Jim Henson, a fun ‘80s aesthetic, and timeless fantasy tropes. Labyrinth is full of quirky characters and dry humour. Even minor scenes are iconic, like the worm inviting Sarah in for tea (“’Ello!”).
While Labyrinth doesn’t follow real-world logic, it somehow follows the logic of poetry and optical illusions so perfectly that every plot point seems airtight. When Sarah and Hoggle climb up a shaft and out of a pot that’s not connected to the ground, and when Sarah knows that she can defeat Jareth by reciting lines from her play, it makes perfect sense within the context of the film’s world. Neither of these things feel like plot holes or deus ex machinas.
Labyrinth has a ton of heart, as well as moral complexity. The characters tend to act on their emotions rather than making the smartest choices. This makes them incredibly relatable, and also adds depth to their relationships. Sarah and Hoggle may be heroes, but they both do things that hurt the people they care about. The characters experience deep regret, and they also forgive each other. On the other hand, Jareth may be the bad guy, but technically he’s only doing what Sarah asked him to.
I’ve already mentioned the phenomenon of charismatic bad guys in fantasy, and Jareth is perhaps the ultimate example of this. I was certainly drawn to him as a child, and I know I wasn’t the only ‘80s kid who had a crush on the Goblin King. When you consider the character’s moral ambiguity, the suggestion that he’s in love with Sarah, and the fact that he’s played by David Bowie with all of his natural charm, it’s really no surprise. He’s truly one of the best fantasy villains of all time. The film’s other characters are just as exceptional, especially the adorable Ludo, and the fantastic Sir Didymus. I never fail to get emotional when they reunite with Sarah at the end. “Should you need us…”
How to Draw Ghosts, Vampires & Haunted Houses by Emma Fischel (Children’s Book, 1988)
I’ve loved vampires for a long time, and most of my vampire-related obsessions came after I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was 13. However, the obsession didn’t start with Buffy. Rather, it was what caused me to be drawn to Buffy in the first place. When I watched the first episode and saw the Master in his underground lair, surrounded by candles and the ruins of an old church, I remember thinking this was exactly the show I’d always wanted to watch—it felt like it was made for me.
I hadn’t seen or read much about vampires before that, so where did that feeling come from? I’m pretty sure I always liked the vague idea of vampires, but the one pre-Buffy thing that I remember really catching my attention was this book. A “How to Draw” book might seem like a strange choice for this list, but it was influential for me, cementing the thought of vampires as cool and intriguing in my imagination.
Most of the vampires depicted here are of the classic, Bela-Lugosi-as-Dracula style, with slicked-back hair, fancy clothes, and flowing capes. I always loved that aesthetic. I tried to imitate it in my Halloween costume when I was 10, but my red t-shirt, garbage bag cape, and unblended face paint failed miserably. I don’t remember actually attempting to draw many of the images in the book, but I was fascinated with them, flipping through the pages in awe.
I do fairly frequently doodle cartoonish vampires with capes, so perhaps my drawing was inspired by this book after all. The vampire fascination it sparked has certainly had a huge effect on my life. Supernatural fiction is probably my favourite type of fantasy, and Buffy in particular has had a huge effect on everything from my friendships to my life goals.
Mossflower by Brian Jacques (Novel, 1988)
I have never loved any other book as much as I loved Brian Jacques’ Redwall series when I was a kid. Mossflower was my introduction to the series, and always remained my favourite. I still look back fondly on how immersed I was in that world, how special it was, and how much I loved the experience of reading those books.
It could be argued that the series isn’t fantasy at all. Focusing on anthropomorphised woodland animals, there isn’t really any magic to speak of (except a few instances of ghosts appearing), and there aren’t any dragons, elves, or other mythical creatures. However, the entire series is built on fantasy tropes. Essentially, it works like fantasy, feels like fantasy, and has probably introduced many children to the experience of reading fantasy. The setting is a fictional faux-Medieval world, the books are long and epic, they feature heroes going on quests and fighting battles, and there’s always a map at the start so that you can follow the characters’ journeys.
The worldbuilding is exceptional. Redwall Abbey is home to an idyllic community that you can’t help wishing you were part of. Each book is set in a different time period and follows a different generation of Abbey dwellers. This allows for variety in terms of the characters and focus of each book, while also providing an epic sense of scale, and a lot of fun and meaningful connections between novels. The world beyond Redwall Abbey seems vast and exciting. Journeys outside its walls always seem to take a long time, and feel like real adventures.
It’s the characters that truly make the Redwall series so great. There are so many exceptional ones throughout the series—including many hilarious and charming hares—but my favourite has always been Mossflower’s Gonff the Mousethief. Gonff is charismatic, funny, and heroic, but he’s still a thief, and his moral ambiguity makes him fascinating. He’s endlessly compelling, and he even has a romantic side. Mossflower holds a lot of significance in the series, since it depicts the founding of Redwall Abbey by the legendary hero Martin the Warrior, but Martin and Gonff’s friendship really is the highlight of this incredible novel.
If you love fantasy like I do, I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed some of these classics yourself as much as I have over the years. If there are any works here that you haven’t seen or read, perhaps you’ll be inspired to check them out. Be sure to comment and let me know what your own favourites were as a child. What was it that first drew you into the genre? I look forward to hearing all about it!