My first reaction to Ryan’s post on the ten funniest science fiction films was: “What about Time Bandits?” But then I figured, okay, you could make a decent argument that Time Bandits should be classified under fantasy rather than science fiction, so we’ll give him that omission. Then I shared the list with my wife, and after we agreed that Young Frankenstein needed to be much higher on the list than it is, she said, “Where’s Bedazzled?”
And that’s when I knew we needed a parallel list for fantasy films.
Of course, you’ve probably already figured out what the top two films on my list are likely to be—that still leaves eight surprises… or eight opportunities to fight over the movies I’ve left out. This is a purely subjective list, after all, and I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told my sense of humor is warped. But let’s have at it…
10. Twice Upon a Time (1983)
I saw this film on cable when I was a teenager, and the “Welcome to the Garbagerie” scene illustrated here has stuck with me for nearly three decades, even though I never saw it again until I found it on YouTube while I was brainstorming this list. It’s a story about two good-hearted misfits, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal (voiced by Lorenzo “Carlton the Doorman” Music) and Mumford (voiced by nobody), who’ve been tricked by the ruler of the nightmare factory into stealing the mainspring to the Cosmic Clock but rise to the occasion and set things right. I’m not going to overload this list with animation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Twice Upon a Time, and rewatching it even showed me how much I hadn’t appreciated about it when I was 14, so this is my “gimme” pick.
9. Zelig (1983)
I debated between Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s other great fantasy film, but I’m a sucker for fake documentaries, and in this particular case it’s a usefully subdued way to approach the central conceit of a “human chamelon” who can fit in with anybody, anywhere. On another day, I might decide differently, but today the scenes I can’t shake out of my head are from this film.
8. Groundhog Day (1993)
People were mentioning this in the comments on the science fiction list as an obvious missing candidate, so I’m going to make the case that the 24-hour loop in which Phil, Bill Murray’s snarky weatherman character, finds himself is a fantasy element. (According to the IMDB’s trivia section, early drafts of the screenplay bear this out, blaming the time trap on a curse by an ex-girlfriend.) Mind you, it’s not the technical explanations that put Groundhog Day on this list; it’s the way Phil gradually adjusts himself to these bizarre circumstances, making a new life for himself out of this tiny corner of reality.
7. Down to Earth (2001) / Heaven Can Wait (1978) / Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
Right now, it’s the 2001 Chris Rock version of this story that I can remember well enough to laugh at the bits that made me laugh when I first saw it, but we should be sure to acknowledge the source material. Whatever version you go with, though, the story of a talented young man whose life is shut down by an overeager guardian angel and is given new life in the body of a rich jerk always plays out as a charming fantasy. (Hmmm. Now that I think of it, I wonder why they’ve never remade this story with female leads?)
6. Beetlejuice (1988)
One of the biggest questions I faced while compiling this list: “Do I include horror?” I decided against it, which is why you’re not seeing any Evil Dead pictures, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, or The Frighteners (I told you, I have a warped sense of humor), but I couldn’t leave out Beetlejuice. And I could make up some big spiel about how it’s really an afterlife comedy that deploys some horror tropes subversively, but do I really have to justify this selection? I don’t think so.
5. Oh, God! (1977)
This might be one of those films where its reputation as a comedy classic is so overwhelming that you might not even think of it as a fantasy until it shows up on a list like this, and then you remember, “Hey, yeah, it’s about a guy who’s visited by God!” It’s easy to understand why: The comedy in Oh, God! is extremely well-executed. Not just George Burn’s heavenly schtick, but John Denver’s portrayal of an ordinary man on the receiving end of a divine intervention that throws his life uncomfortably out of whack.
4. The Princess Bride (1987)
There’s only one word to describe a list of the funniest fantasy films that doesn’t include The Princess Bride: inconceivable. Heck, a lot of you are probably just asking yourself why it’s all the way back at #4. It’s a tough call, but I had to make it. Still, I do love so much about this film. “Mawwiage…” “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.” “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Anybody want a peanut?”
3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Fortunately for me, Danny Bowes covered this film extensively in an Tor.com post a while back, including the brilliant insight that this is really a supernatural martial arts flick starring Dennis Dun that’s hijacked by Kurt Russell as the cheerfully oblivious sidekick. As Danny also points out, James Hong gives the performance of his career as supervillain Lo Pan. The script here is pitch perfect, and John Carpenter catches the zany, anything goes spirit that would, a decade or so later, bring Hong Kong action closer into the American mainstream.
2. Time Bandits (1981)
I’m not 100% sure on this point, but I think seeing Time Bandits on cable was my first exposure to Monty Python humor. It was either this or Holy Grail (and if you’re wondering why that isn’t on the list, I’ll confess that I’ve never really thought of it as a fantasy). The comedy is fantastic, but as a young boy I was just as dazzled by the thoroughness of Terry Gilliam’s vision—he creates a whole universe here, with inventive details sprinkled throughout. And I still get choked up every time the section in the mythical age ends, but then I get right back to laughing again pretty quickly.
(Speaking of Terry Gilliam and inventiveness, I wonder if I should have made room for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen…)
1. Bedazzled (1967)
There are many comedic takes on the “deal with the devil” story, but this is the one to watch; accept no substitutes (especially not the 2000 remake with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley). The rapport between Peter Cook and Dudley Moore is exquisite—they’d been working together for years, and their ease with each other shows—and their multi-directional approach to the story of Stanley Moon selling his soul in exchange for seven attempts to land the beautiful coworker he has a crush on gives them an assortment of premises to run with. (This clip, when Stanley wishes he were a pop star, is one of my favorite bits, and I have a sneaking suspiction it’s one of Morrissey’s favorite film scenes, too. Although you should really see Peter Cook’s retaliatory strike for the full effect.) It isn’t just the setups that are so funny, though, it’s all the amazing little side bits they indulge in along the way. Bedazzled basically feels like a comedy duo having the time of their life, and you’re lucky enough to be able to watch.
OK, what did I leave out? As I mentioned above, I deliberately excluded horror films, so maybe that’s another list for somebody else to play with. And I thought carefully about Liar Liar and Big before deciding I didn’t want to give up any of the films I’d already picked. I was also informed that Superman III is a science fiction film, and that it isn’t even funny. Now it’s your turn… tell me what I got wrong!