If you were a kid in the ’80s, you probably spent a lot of your time getting swept up in the cinematic adventures of loveable goblins, dog-faced dragons and vulture-like monsters that wanted to drink your essence.
However, the likes of Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story and The Dark Crystal weren’t just for kids. Almost 40 years later, our pick of the best '80s fantasy films still hold up, and watching them with adult eyes reveals surprising hidden depths.
Sure, these movies were (mostly) deemed safe enough for pre-teens to enjoy, but they were also shockingly profound, moving and daring in their ambition.
There are loads to choose from, but here are 10 you need to revisit immediately…
Best '80s fantasy movies
1. The Princess Bride (1987)
Quite literally a bed-time story in movie form, Rob Reiner’s romantic fantasy has more than stood the test of time — its nod-wink postmodern approach to fairy-tales means it’s perfect for if you’re now too old to be read a bed-time story by Peter Falk, plus look at all those quotable lines. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…”
2. Labyrinth (1986)
So much more than a mere update of Alice in Wonderland, Jim Henson’s final film is a bona fide rock ballad to sexual awakening (complete with codpiece and catchy musical numbers), as Jennifer Connelly’s babysitter confronts impending adulthood in David Bowie’s goblin kingdom.
3. Willow (1988)
This fantasy adventure starring Warwick Davis is a romp and a half, but peel the layers and you’ll discover an impressively feminist film (it’s almost about rescuing a female child) that also functions as a salute to little people – it still has the biggest cast of little actors of any film in history, including The Wizard of Oz.
4. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
The most explicitly “for grown-ups” film listed here, thanks to its abundance of gore and nudity, this sword-n-sorcery epic is worth revisiting for its tremendous set-pieces, a genuinely terrifying giant snake, James Earl Jones on fine villain form, and Arnold Schwarzenegger proving he has charisma, uniqueness and talent to go along with that mountainous physique.
5. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Chances are you’re still recovering from the bit in this surreal German classic where the horse drowns in the Swamps of Sadness, but watch the film again as a grown-up and marvel at the audacity of the final-act flip, which shatters the fourth wall and invites the viewer to become a part of The NeverEnding Story.
6. The Dark Crystal (1982)
Performed almost entirely by a cast of puppets, this deeply philosophical dark fantasy contains some of the gnarliest villains ever committed to celluloid (adult nightmares await), and deals in themes of gentrification, mass genocide, industrialisation, and the multi-faceted nature of identity. And they say it was just for kids…
7. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The colourful cartoon characters in this boundary-pushing mystery can’t help but entertain children, but the film’s expert satire is purely for grown-ups, as Bob Hoskins’ hangdog 1940s detective solves a murder with the help (but mostly hindrance) of the titular hopper.
8. Flight of the Navigator (1986)
We all remember the zany stuff that happens inside the spaceship (particularly the Beach Boys flying montage, and Peewee Herman voicing an AI). However, a grown-up rewatch reveals a surprisingly emotional slow-burner, with a genuine WTF rug-pull 10 minutes in, as 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer) trips in the woods and wakes up eight years in the future.
9. Legend (1985)
An early one for Tom Cruise, this dream-like fantasy lacks the innate edge of other films on this list, but it has style to spare, thanks to Ridley Scott’s art-school propensity for sumptuous visuals. And who could forget Tim Curry’s scene-stealing role as the devilish Lord of Darkness?
10. Return to Oz (1982)
You thought flying monkeys were scary? Even more nightmarish creatures await in this belated sequel, in which Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy faces the terrifying Wheelers as she attempts to rescue Emerald City from ruin. It’s dark, it’s weird, and it’s still unmissable.
Josh Winning is the author of The Shadow Glass, a nostalgic dark fantasy inspired by 1980s fantasy films, in which the thirty-something son a movie director goes on a quest with the puppets from his father’s movie. It is published by Titan Books on 22 March and is available now.