Eons ago, in the dark ages of video stores, adventurers navigated labyrinthine aisles and palavered with part-time archmaesters to find treasured artifacts of the fantasy film genre. Now, thanks to Netflix, one can simply walk into Mordor and sweep over hundreds of options with the click of a button. Which is magical ... if you know what you’re looking for.
Most of us don’t possess an Eye of Sauron to sift through Netflix’s fantasy movie programming, making it nearly impossible to find the quality picks buried beneath the Swamp of Direct-to-Video Sadness. Thankfully, we’ve gone there and back again to pick a few of the streaming service’s brightest gems. Assuming you’ve embarked on a few of Netflix’s bigger-name titles — Kubo and the Two Strings, Stardust, Netflix’s surprisingly fulfilling Fullmetal Alchemist movie, or Marvel’s Doctor Strange — here are 10 movies that will serve you well on ... a knight in.
Tale of Tales (2016)
Based on fairy tales collected by Italian writer Giambattista Basile (who was smart enough to scribble down the stories of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty way back when), this anthology film explores human obsession through a lavish, often devilish lens. In Tale of Tales’ assortment of vignettes, a husband puts his life on the line to carve the heart out of a sea monster to impregnate his infertile wife; a mother is driven to violence over her son’s doppelgänger; two elderly, jealous women pickle their skin for a chance to bed a vain king; and another royal patriarch, certain that no one can guess the texture of an oversized flea hide, bets his daughter’s hand in marriage only to lose her to an ogre. From minute one, Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah) illustrates his grim (Grimm?) shorts with the eye-popping color of old masters. Arthur Rackham would be proud.
Baahubali: The Beginning (2015)
In Western terms, this Tollywood production, the most expensive Indian film at the time of its release, is like a biblical epic by way of Marvel Studios, with a little Hamlet and Step Up thrown in for good measure. The Beginning chronicles the life of Shivudu, an adventurer with superhuman strength who escapes his provincial life by scaling a skyscraper-sized waterfall, aides and romances a rebel warrior named Avanthika, then teams up with her to rescue a kidnapped queen from an evil emperor. Exploding with hyper-choreographed fight sequences and CG spectacle (not to mention a handful of musical numbers with equal bravura), The Beginning is 159 minutes of mythical excess, going big like only Indian film can, and resting on the muscular shoulders of its hero, the single-name actor Prabhas. If you fall hard for it, get pumped — this is only part one. The twist leads into Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, another two-and-a-half-hour epic currently streaming on Netflix.
King Kong (2005)
Three Lord of the Rings movies, including an Oscar sweep from Return of the King, bought Peter Jackson carte blanche to make whatever the hell he wanted to make. He played the passion project card on another risky fantasy: a mega-budgeted remake of 1933’s King Kong that recreated early-20th-century New York City with the same handcrafted meticulousness of his Middle-earth. Clocking in at three hours, King Kong is Jackson at his most indulgent, with stretches of Depression-era vaudeville, side plots of creature-feature jungle adventuring, plenty of Naomi Watts gazing into Andy Serkis’ motion-captured eyes and, of course, a grand finale atop the Empire State Building. While some viewers may prefer the kaiju-adjacent hysteria of a movie like Kong: Skull Island, we’ll stick up for the patient grandeur of King Kong, a lifetime of movie fandom poured into an eye-popping art-deco blockbuster.
Beauty and the Beast (2014)
This moody take on the 18th-century fantasy from Christophe Gans (Silent Hill) does not involve singing teacups or candelabra-on-feather-duster hanky-panky (but if you really need to see Disney’s Emma Watson-led remake from last year, that’s on Netflix, too). Instead, Gans gives the cross-species romance a macabre shine, and maintains the story’s French setting and language. As in Disney’s version, Belle (Léa Seydoux) swaps in for her elderly father when the Beast (Vincent Cassel) demands a prisoner. Unlike the Disney version, Gans lets the romance and magic swirl through darkness like a glistening, glowing Fabergé egg. The key is Cassel nailing the Beast’s tender growl; under CG fur, and through a number of dream sequences, his conflicted prince chews up the trickier material that’s made the Beauty and the Beast story problematic over the years. And his French accent ... well, it’s really a magic all of its own.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
OK, now for an actual Disney movie. Moviegoers who grew up on the 1977 2D/live-action musical version of Pete’s Dragon may have shrugged off this remake as a Mouse House cash-grab, despite the movie petering out with a $76 million U.S. total. But fans of classic Spielberg or the recent wave of Amblin-inspired throwbacks will take delight in this tale of a boy raised in the wilderness, and the invisible dragon who guards his undomesticated life from Pacific Northwest park rangers. As in E.T. or The Iron Giant, director David Lowery (A Ghost Story) mixes overcast, small-town chill with the warmth of a huggable special-effects creation. By shooting the whole movie on location, everything is made to feel so real you never question a fluffy green giant protecting his best friend from social services and money-grubbing hunters.
Legend of the Naga Pearls (2017)
Set in the world of Novoland, the Chinese equivalent of Middle-earth, this audacious action-fantasy is a sugary cocktail mixed from Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Hellboy and wuxia classics. The movie follows an Aladdin-like thief, a prince and a lady constable with a magical past who team up to protect the Naga pearls. The pearls are the key to a world-decimating super weapon known as “Eye in the Sky,” from the diabolical descendant of the Winged Tribe, a tribe of people with ... wings. The menagerie of stuff-to-remember is offset by loads of creature makeup, expensive-looking setpieces and all the drama of a dark ride, making this prime viewing for Saturday morning cartoon enthusiasts.
American slackers investigate the Blair Witch; Norwegian slackers investigate 50-foot trolls. From The Autopsy of Jane Doe director André Øvredal, this found-footage fantasy comedy tracks a band of student filmmakers as they hunt down, and prove the existence of, their nation’s fabled monsters. Øvredal pairs the chaos of a Discovery channel nature doc with off-the-wall on-screen personalities to roll out an intentionally rough-around-the-edges road trip fantasy. Oh, and there are three-headed trolls. They’re fun, too.
Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
Not all fantasy stories take place in faraway lands — some come to life right in our backyards. Based on Katherine Paterson’s classic YA novel, and directed by animation veteran Gábor Csupó (The Simpsons, Aaahh!! Real Monsters), Bridge to Terabithia finds two struggling 12-year-olds retreating to an imaginary world to work out their issues. Their treehouse becomes a castle. Their school bullies become towering trolls and rabid squirrel monsters. And when anger, anxiety and loss start bleeding into their daily lives, each swing across the forest creek becomes an adventure worthy of Narnia. Few movies starring kid actors wrestle with the issues Bridge to Terabithia puts on the table. Few kid actors — in this case, pre-fame versions of The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson and The Carrie Diaries’ AnnaSophia Robb — are up for wrestling with those issues.
Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015)
Nicolas Cage’s American history heist movie National Treasure is now on Netflix, and this Chinese blockbuster, one of a handful of movies adapted from Zhang Muye’s Ghost Blows Out the Light series, would make a relic-hunting double feature alongside it. Starting in early ’90s Manhattan, where a trio of professional grave robbers have retired from breaking into magical tombs, then jumping to Mongolia, where a deep-pocketed cult leader lures the team back into business, the movie has more in common with the point-and-click antics of the Monkey Island games than the dashing adventure of Indiana Jones. It’s chock full of zombies and puzzles and fluorescent fire traps that our heroes must outrun to find their prized McGuffin. For a movie that basically descends into a circus version of hell, Mojin has a serious backbone (touching on everything from lost loves to the Cultural Revolution) and actors who could go toe to toe with Nic Cage.
Solomon Kane (2012)
After sitting on the shelf for years, this big-screen take on the pulp character became a punching bag for critics who saw it as a cheap cash-in on Lord of the Rings-style sword and sorcery. To quote a British Puritan from the 1600s: Nay. Nay, I say. James Purefoy (Altered Carbon) is stoic and adroit as the title hero, who battles dark magic across the Earth until the inevitable moment when he must submit his soul to Satan. A kidnapped girl gives him the purpose he needs to keep on slicing and dicing the minions of the evil sorcerer Malachi, a splatterfest that director Michael J. Bassett captures with ashy cinematography and whirlwind swordplay.
Monster Hunt (2015)
This animation/live action hybrid from director Raman Hui (Shrek the Third) is more fascinating than great. Today’s Chinese censorship laws mostly prohibit magical elements from appearing in a present-day context, forcing fantasy films to either set the action in ancient times or completely fictional worlds (which is why you see representations of both on this list). There’s also a clear hunger from audiences for what Hui does best: goofy, kinetic, heartfelt family films — which explains why Monster Hunt blew up into China’s biggest film of all time upon its release in 2015. The movie itself is like a DreamWorks Animation joint come to life, telling that classic story of a man who becomes impregnated by a monster queen, then goes on the run to protect his radish-creature child. It’s far-out, and as a business and cultural touchstone, worth a watch.