A few weeks ago it hit me that my eldest child is going to be in middle school next year, and his younger brother is only a year behind him. I decided to come up with a way of celebrating this growth rather than freaking out about it.
Having been a long time fan of fantasy books and films (and my boys are beginning to follow in my footsteps in that regard), I decided we should watch some of my favorite fantasy films.
I picked some that I felt were pushing the limits a bit (but not too much) on what they could handle content-wise, so they would have the privilege of watching something without their younger sisters. They’ll have to wait on The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies as those are still too violent in my opinion. Also, I want them to read the Lord of the Rings books before watching the movies (they have already read The Hobbit). The same goes for Harry Potter; the later books and movies are still a bit too much. Star Wars (which, by the way, is more fantasy than science fiction) is an obvious choice, but they’ve already seen it.
One of the Excellent Films by Hayao Miyazaki
My favorite Hayao Miyazaki film is Spirited Away. However, I chose my second favorite, Princess Mononoke, as I thought my boys would enjoy it better. It is rated PG-13 for images of violence and gore, and it does deserve that rating, but just barely.
You can watch the movie with English audio, but I’m not a fan of the English dialog, and they added some foul language with the English audio. Therefore, I highly recommend watching it with the original Japanese dialog and literal English translation subtitles. This was the first subtitled movie my boys have watched, but they had no problem keeping up.
Another way Princess Mononoke provides a challenge is in its exploration of what is good and what is evil. The “bad guy” Lady Eboshi does many kind, generous, admirable things, and the “good guy” deer god probably kills more than any other creature. This film also explores ideas of environmental conservation vs technological progress and tradition vs social progress. It does a good job of asking the questions without turning into idealogical propaganda.
Are you looking for a movie with a strong female lead rather than the typical Disney princess? Look no further. We first see the title character in the middle of a forest sucking blood from a bullet wound in the chest of a gigantic wolf. Accuse her of simpering, and she would probably slit your throat.
I recommend any of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, and many of them are appropriate for younger children. Miyazaki’s films are available to stream on HBO Max. I do not have HBO Max but I was able to find them (along with most of the other movies in this list) at my public library. You may want to check out what is available at your local library.
One of the Many Cheesy 80s Fantasy Films
Willow has the better acting, plot, and production quality. It is a fun adventure with good pacing and likeable characters, and it ended up being my boys’ favorite.
The Neverending Story moves more slowly and sometimes seems like a weird mashup of different mythologies and fantasy archetypes. It also has a pointlessly sad dying horse and the most idiotic name ever conceived. Moon child? Really?!? However, it has an amazing theme song. That you won’t be able to get out of your head for a month.
You could also go with Labyrinth, Legend, The Dark Crystal, etc.
The Princess Bride
Yes, The Princess Bride is also an 80s fantasy film, but it has aged much better than the others mentioned in the previous section. It is also a hilarious comedy.
It is the side characters that truly carry this film (yes, I know Westley is awesome, but Buttercup is useless): Vizzini the Sicilian, Inigo “you killed my father prepare to die” Montoya, Fezzik (RIP Andre), the despicable Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen, the Albino, Miracle Max and his wife, the “mawage” clergyman, Columbo.
Sword fighting, romance, adventure, rodents of unusual size, and lots of humor… what’s not to love?
Anybody want a peanut?
The Secret of Kells
I love the story of St. Aidan and the Book of Kells. My favorite version is the book Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead. It’s long and a bit heavy, so it would be best to wait until late middle school or early high school to read that. In the meantime, we have the wonderful animated film The Secret of Kells.
The movie’s main character is a young orphan named Brendan. Brendan lives at the abbey of Kells, Ireland with his uncle the Abbot. Aidan comes to Kells with the unfinished Book of Iona (also later called the Book of Kells) fleeing from the Vikings who have invaded Iona, and recruits Brendan to help finish the book. Brendan is aided by the fairy Aisling, who also helps him escape the Vikings who eventually invade Kells.
The main theme of the movie is bringing light into the dark places; and, though the movie nevers explains it, the Book of Kells is, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which brings the true light into the darkest of all places.
The style of the animation in this film is retro but brilliantly beautiful.
If you like The Secret of Kells, you should check out its sister film, Song of the Sea.
The Wizard of Oz
Despite being by far the oldest film on this list (1939), The Wizard of Oz feels less dated than the 80s movies previously mentioned. It’s a children’s movie that is too scary for children and a musical that is ok for guys to like (and even sing along with). It’s one of the very few movies that is actually better than the book, and the book is really good.
It has all the classic fantasy elements. A quest. Witches, both good and evil, and wizards, though fake. Talking animals. Strange and exotic peoples. An ordinary, humble person turned hero. An epic soundtrack.
Oz was not my very first introduction to fantasy (that was C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia), but it was what hooked me on the genre. After watching, and falling in love with, the movie, I read all of the books (the original 14 by L. Frank Baum and the subsequent 20 or so by Ruth Plumly Thompson). Not long after that, I discovered The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and the world of fantasy fiction was laid open wide before me.
If the original movie seems too childish to you or your children, you could always show them The Wiz instead… just be prepared to pay their therapist’s bills.