Debate Club: Best 1980s Fantasy Films

Debate Club: The 5 best 1980s fantasy films

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Sep 26, 2018, 5:35 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we’re saluting the best fantasy films of the 1980s. It was an interesting era: Star Wars had helped raise the genre's visibility, ushering in an age in which swords-and-sandals spectacles, wised-up fairy tales, and enchanted children’s films could blossom.

But this decade's movies were still trying to wrap their collective heads around George Lucas' blockbuster, bringing newfangled special effects to old-fashioned stories, not always successfully. But the five movies on this list have stood the test of time, conjuring something enduring and mythic while also remaining pretty damn cool.

Falcor Vs. Atreyu - Classy Skit #1

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

Okay, sure, the theme song is super lame. But this adaptation of the Michael Ende novel does a stellar job of delivering grownup entertainment to kids and treating them as bright, inquisitive young people, as opposed to rambunctious moppets who need flashing things to be amused.

Barret Oliver plays Bastian as a bookish boy who happens upon a magical tome involving a dying fantasy realm — the book's so magical, in fact, that Bastian gets pulled inside the adventure. If The NeverEnding Story were made today, it would be wall-to-wall garish CGI, but director Wolfgang Petersen (before he went on to make In the Line of Fire and Air Force One) gives his film real weight through the use of puppets and other old-school effects. This movie's been largely forgotten, but it's still a charmer — and it inspired a very weird deep-cut shout-out from the Lonely Island.

Legend - Jack Defeats Darkness (1985)

Legend (1985)

Of all the '80s fantasy films that blend together — Willow, Labyrinth, Ladyhawke — this is the one with Tom Cruise in it. Tom Cruise and a unicorn, to be exact, along with Mia Sara in a Ridley Scott joint that lost a little juice in its American version but is truer to Scott's darker vision in the director's cut. (The one that even Cruise prefers.)

Legend is earnest but weird and features a wild performance by Tim Curry (not that there's any other kind of performance from Tim Curry). He plays Darkness, the evil devil guy. He has the best laugh ever. And bless Cruise for playing this so straight.

"Conan The Barbarian (1982)" Theatrical Trailer

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

You are forgiven if you prefer Conan the Destroyer — which has Wilt Chamberlain in it! — but we'll go with the original with its Arnold and its violence and its cheerful thudding-ness happily intact.

This is the role that Arnold Schwarzenegger was born to play (or at least pose on the cover of a paperback to play), and it has all the violence and nudity and violence and, oh, yes, violence that you could possibly hope for from the Robert E. Howard tales of heroism and pulp delight. It still seems insane that Oliver Stone co-wrote this thing.

The Dark Crystal - Trailer

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Jim Henson and Frank Oz, two of the talents behind The Muppet Show, teamed up for this original tale of a magical realm ruled by the evil Skeksis. It's up to two brave Gelflings, Jen and Kira, to repair the titular crystal and, hopefully, restore balance to the kingdom.

Audiences expecting another Sesame Street-style romp were greeted with a wonderfully dark fantasy film — the kind that can give kids nightmares — as well as astoundingly sophisticated puppetry. The Dark Crystal is a feat of handmade artistry as the filmmakers create a world that feels timeless and resonant. Netflix is working on a prequel series, but good luck matching the wonder and inventiveness of the original.

The Princess Bride - Inconceivable! (1987)

The Princess Bride (1987)

If you were to track Rob Reiner’s career on a bell curve, starting with the caustic wit of This Is Spinal Tap and ending with the sappy pabulum of, well, his most recent eight or so films, this would fall right in the sweet spot. It's a charmer with a bit of acid to it, a cracked fairy tale that has your hero and your princess and your monsters but all with a twist, enough to keep you involved and invested but also with a level of irony that makes it all go down just right.

This is a fantasy film that knows that fantasy films are silly... yet can't help but go head over heels for them regardless. And let us never forget the comedic teaming of Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant.


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.