If The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which hits Netflix on Friday, has you in the mood to watch more 1980s fantasy movies about unlikely heroes—preferably with puppets—we’ve got you covered. And if you finish your Dark Crystal binge and want more in the same vein...well, this same list still applies.
Stranger Things already did some heavy lifting on this one, showcasing The NeverEnding Story’s gloriously cornball theme song during its recent third season. But if you didn’t already go back and watch Wolfgang Peterson’s 1984 fantasy—about a lonely kid who gets sucked into the exciting, terrifying, beautiful, and occasionally painfully sad (RIP Artax) world of Fantasia, thanks to the magic of reading—now’s the perfect time. The special effects, particularly the puppets, don’t look nearly as slick as what we’re used to today, but the movie’s iconic creatures, like Falkor the Luck Dragon, the sinister Gmork, and the melancholy Rock Biter, have a power that still endures.
Ron Howard (who directed) and George Lucas (who came up with the story; Lucasfilm’s ILM also worked on the film’s then-groundbreaking special effects) reunited 15 years after American Graffiti for this fable about a baby with a very important destiny and the people and magical creatures who step up to help her. The title character is an unlikely hero, a bumbling magician played by Warwick Davis (whose best-known prior role was under furry costuming as Wicket the Ewok in Return of the Jedi). His quest to deliver the infant to safety sees him cross paths with all manner of colorful characters: brownies, trolls, fairies, a rakish warrior (Val Kilmer, post-Top Gun), and multiple sorcerers, including an evil queen played by Jean Marsh—who also portrayed an evil witch in Return to Oz (more on that movie below).
Willow leans into its comedic elements pretty heavily, though there’s also plenty of action and romance—Kilmer and Joanne Whalley, who plays villain Sorsha who makes good after falling for Kilmer’s character, actually got married after meeting during the production, though they later split. But there’s still hope for another kind of happy ending beyond the movie, if Disney+ ever makes good on its rumblings about a Willow sequel series.
You’ve probably already seen Rob Reiner’s beloved 1987 classic, adapted by William Goldman from his novel, approximately one zillion times. The Princess Bride—starring Cary Elwes and Robin Wright—is easily one of the most quotable movies ever made, and is so instantly recognizable (even 30-plus years after its initial release) that its frame story was repurposed for another in last year’s PG-13 re-do of Deadpool 2. But we feared being tossed in the Pit of Despair if we didn’t include The Princess Bride on this very genre-specific list.
Legend is a movie worth revisiting every few years just to remind yourself that it exists. Yes, in 1985 Ridley Scott made a dark (yet sorta campy) fantasy tale starring a post-Risky Business (but pre-Top Gun) Tom Cruise as a forest-dwelling scamp who romances a princess (Mia Sara from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Yes, Princess Lili foolishly, albeit somewhat understandably, seizes the opportunity to pet a unicorn. Who wouldn’t? Yes, that forbidden act sets a chain of awful things in motion, at least “awful” in the context of Legend, because Tim Curry’s performance as the Lord of Darkness—a deeply evil character who tempts Lili with a super-goth, magical dancing dress!—is a majestic wonder, helped along by the wizardry of special effects make-up master Rob Bottin.
After animator Don Bluth left Disney, where he’d worked on films like Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and Pete’s Dragon, he set up his own studio and got to work on this 1982 adaptation of beloved children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (in the movie, the main character was renamed “Mrs. Brisby” to avoid legal entanglements with the makers of “Frisbee” toys).
The tale—about a widowed field mouse desperate to keep her children safe from the many cruelties of the world (illness, farm machinery, cats), and the super-smart rats (and other assorted creatures) who help her—is as action-packed as it is tearjerking, and the voice cast has some surprising entries. Among the big names like Derek Jacobi and John Carradine, you’ll also hear a couple of child actors named Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty.
The sole feature film directed by famed editor Walter Murch, 1985's Return to Oz was a bit misunderstood at the time of its release—but has since become a cult favorite, thanks in no small part to its wondrously creepy, Oscar-nominated visual effects. An 11-year-old Fairuza Balk (who would go on to lead The Craft) stars as Dorothy, whose life has gotten incredibly bleak since the events of the first film (the most obvious audience reference point, though Return to Oz takes its cues from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books rather than the 1939 movie; ain’t no singing in this one). The family farm has been in struggle mode since the tornado six months prior, and so has Dorothy, who can’t sleep through the night or stop blabbing about Oz.
When Auntie Em (Piper Laurie of Carrie and Twin Peaks fame) decides to sign her up for shock treatment, Dorothy escapes and ends up back in Oz, but it’s not the Technicolor dream world she remembers; all her friends are either missing or have been turned to stone, thanks to a sinister new regime that has allowed the Emerald City to slide into ruin. Fortunately, Dorothy makes some fantastical new allies—mostly portrayed by intricate puppets, including a loquacious chicken who tags along from Kansas. There’s a certain amount of whimsy in Return to Oz, but it comes wrapped in a blanket of despair and darkness, which only makes it more timeless. Mustachioed mechanical man Tik-Tok, who’s fond of saying things like “I have always valued my lifelessness,” is a forever mood.
Labyrinth has a lot of shared DNA with other movies on this list—it’s directed by Jim Henson, executive produced by George Lucas, and fantasy artist Brian Froud (who also worked on The Dark Crystal) created the conceptual designs. (What’s more, Froud’s son, future Age of Resistance design supervisor Toby, also played “the babe” in the movie; you can read more about that below.)
The puppet characters are as remarkable as all that behind-the-scenes talent would have you believe, as is the production design, but Labyrinth’s human characters are also exceptional—Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, as the angsty teen fairy-tale fanatic who quickly regrets wishing her little brother away into a fantasy land, and of course David Bowie as the gloriously-maned Jareth, the Goblin King. Bowie also recorded several songs for the film, including eternal tear-the-club-up fantasy jam “Magic Dance.”
This one’s obvious, but if, somehow, the hype over Netflix’s lavish prequel hasn’t yet tempted you to revisit Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 original film, what are you waiting for? It’s as intricate and terrifying as you remember, with amazingly well-realized world building and puppets that may be several generations behind the Netflix series—but are no less eerie and expressive.
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