Five Fantasy Movies With Timeless Fairy Tale Vibes

I recently wrote a list about beloved books with fairy tale vibes, and now it’s time for the movie version! To quickly reiterate the premise: these are films that aren’t based on what we consider to be classic fairy tales—you won’t find versions of “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” or “Hansel and Gretel” here. These films are either fully original stories or they’re an adaptation of an original story, but they’ve all been sprinkled with that magical pixie dust that gives them the whimsical feeling of a fairy tale that’s been told time and time again.

On the book version of this list, I mentioned the film adaptations of The Princess Bride and Stardust, so I won’t talk about them any further here, but consider them both honorary mentions! With that said, let’s step into these onscreen once-upon-a-time tales…

Enchanted (2007)

Disney are, of course, known for their animated adaptations of beloved fairy tales, and specifically princess-focused stories. Director Kevin Lima’s Enchanted is a loving homage to, as well as a humorous parody of, those classic films. Things start out in animation, with starry-eyed Giselle (Amy Adams) falling in lust love with the handsome Prince Edward (James Marsden). The evil queen (Susan Sarandon) wants to stop their upcoming wedding, so she gets rid of Giselle by pushing her into the real, live-action world.  

Giselle is pure Disney princess, despite not technically being one. The fairy tale trappings of her life—asking animals to do her bidding, wearing fanciful dresses, and randomly breaking into song—bring a little sparkle to the bustling streets of New York City. Giselle’s attempts to adapt to her new surroundings are as endearing as they are amusing, as is the grumpy/sunshine dynamic between her and cynical lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey).

And I can’t talk about Enchanted without lavishing some love on well-meaning himbo Edward, who was exuding Kenergy years before Barbie gave us a name for it. Edward is essentially the guy you get if you cross Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (1991) with the heart of an adorable golden retriever…

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

I’m very aware that Wolfgang Petersen’s adaptation of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979) is uneven in its execution, but nostalgia is one hell of a drug. I’ve never actually read the book—I promise it’s on my ever-growing TBR!—but I hear it’s great.

In the frame narrative of the film, bullied kid Bastian (Barret Oliver) escapes from his real-world problems by getting lost in a book (relatable!) titled The Neverending Story. In this tale, a boy called Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is tasked with saving the land of Fantasia from The Nothing.

I remember feeling a little confused by the plot when I was a kid, but I got swept up in the magic anyway. Now as an adult, I understand what’s actually going on, but the magic has been slightly diluted. For instance, I conceptually love the idea of riding on the back—or, rather, neck—of luckdragon Falkor, but then I consider his face and think “yeah, no thanks.”

And as for Atreyu’s loyal steed Artax, I’m still not emotionally ready to revisit the Swamp of Sadness scene, and I’m not sure I ever will be.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

A lost princess. A wicked stepfather. An otherworldly labyrinth. These sound like the ingredients of a typical fairy tale, but Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is anything but. The story takes place in Spain in 1944, with Captain Vidal (Sergi López) brutally hunting down the rebels who survived the Spanish Civil War. As well as being a fascist monster, Vidal is also ten-year-old Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) new stepfather.

The real-world storyline of Pan’s Labyrinth is bleak, and you might expect the mythical labyrinth that Ofelia discovers to offer her a welcoming respite. Unfortunately, she’s simply faced with further horrors—albeit of a more fantastical nature. The Pale Man may haunt my nightmares, but Vidal haunts my days. If the film’s darkness gives you pause, just know that it’s also incredibly acted and plotted, visually stunning, and set to a hauntingly beautiful score.

Also, don’t get hung up on trying to figure out whether the fantasy elements are real or not. Not only is the answer purposefully not presented within the film, but it wouldn’t change things either way.

Labyrinth (1986)

Jumping from one labyrinth into another, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth sees 16-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) working her way through a series of twisting, maze-like passages after wishing for her baby brother, Toby (played by Toby Froud—whose parents met while working on 1982’s The Dark Crystal!), to be taken away by goblins. Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) gives her 13 hours to make it through the labyrinth to either rescue her brother, or lose him forever.

As is expected from a Henson film, Labyrinth is positively stuffed with puppets. Many of the settings Sarah explores and the bizarre creatures she encounters feel like something out of a fever dream come true (I’m looking at you, Helping Hands and Fire Gang!). But there are also some truly delightful characters, as well (the scarf-wearing worm and sheepdog Ambrosius will always have my heart).

Like Pan’s Labyrinth 20 years later, Labyrinth doesn’t offer up a straightforward fairy tale filled with the expected beats and stock characters. Sarah is no damsel in distress; instead, she’s the knight in shining armor—the hero navigating her way through a coming-of-age journey. Then there’s Jareth, a tight-pants-wearing rock star king who is always wonderfully campy and sometimes surprisingly sinister. But considering that he sings the absolute bop that is “Magic Dance” to stop Toby crying, maybe living the goblin life wouldn’t be so bad after all?

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is a strange fairy tale set in a deliberately unclear time period, with styles and technologies being pulled from the ’50s through to the ’80s. Our titular character, played by Johnny Depp, is an artificial man whose creator (horror legend Vincent Price, in his last film role) died before he could swap out his scissor-bladed appendages for human hands. Edward lives an isolated life in a castle-like Gothic mansion on a hill until he’s found and taken in by Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest), an Avon lady who lives in the candy-colored suburb below.

The whole film is infused with a feeling of unreality thanks to the deliberate anachronism stew of a setting and the stark contrast between dark-clothed, wild-haired, gothic hero Edward and the pastel-colored, cookie-cutter neighborhood where the Boggs family make their home. Although many people begin to warm to Edward thanks to his unique slicing and dicing talents, he’s still cast in the role of the monster because of his inability to conform. In this modern fairy tale, the so-called monster is really a gentle, soft-hearted hero who deserves so much better.  

Do you have any favorite examples of fantasy movies that have the feel of a fairy tale? Whether they’re dark or Disneyfied, please leave them in the comments below! icon-paragraph-end

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