Disney and Lucasfilm just announced a sequel series to Willow, the beloved 80s fantasy movie. The trailer looks really good, combining the spirit of the original movie with breathtaking modern special effects.
Even better, the series is bringing back some of the original cast to join the newcomers Ruby Cruz, Ellie Bamber, and Erin Kellyman. Warwick Davis is there, looking great at 52. (He was only 17 when he filmed the original movie.) There’s also a glimpse of Sorcha, played by Joanne Whaley.
Val Kilmer’s character Madmartigan will have an impact on the story, but Kilmer himself wasn’t able to join the cast in Wales because of lockdowns and health concerns. It’s not clear yet what that means for the series, but executive producer Jonathan Kasdan insists that they haven’t forgotten about Madmartigan.
“Val’s a huge part of this, and the first conversation I had, when Warwick and I got the green light to do this, was with Val,” Kasdan said. “We wanted his character to be a part of the story. We wanted him to be in the show.”
I hope that a whole new generation gets enchanted by the story of Willow Ufgood—and that they discover the incredible treasure trove of fantasy adventure movies that warped my generation’s sense of reality forever.
The criteria: To make this list, a movie had to be released in the 80s, marketed to families and kids, and rated G or PG. Also, for the purpose of keeping this list to a manageable length, it only includes live-action (or at least mostly live-action) movies. My apologies to fans of The Last Unicorn!
The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)
Listening to this avuncular narrator describing The Peanut Butter Solution as if it’s a normal movie is hilarious. We all know that this wasn’t a movie but a collective nightmare that our generation has been trying to suppress for the last 30 years.
The story focuses on Billy Baskin, the son of a starving artist who loses all of his hair after encountering some ghosts. The specters feel bad about it and give him a peanut butter-based recipe to regrow his hair. Unfortunately, the hair won’t stop growing. Somehow, that’s not the weirdest part. An evil art teacher kidnaps Billy and makes magical paintbrushes from his hair, using other kidnapped kids as slave labor.
Fun fact: Celine Dion’s first English-language songs were recorded for the soundtrack of this bizarre Canadian children’s film.
The Witches (1990)
Okay, okay—The Witches was released in 1990, but it fits the spirit of this list too perfectly to leave it off. Anjelica Houston is magnificent in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book. Arthouse horror and sci-fi director Nicholas Roeg created something truly terrifying, in partnership with Jim Henson Productions. Sadly, even though critics loved it, the film was a flop. Roald Dahl reportedly hated it, too.
The recent remake of the movie starring Anne Hathaway came under fire for its CGI body horror, which some activists claim was a tasteless mockery of people with limb differences. Stick with the original, which is still better. Practical effects forever!
Return to Oz (1985)
Raise your hand if you were traumatized by Return to Oz! Fairuza Balk stars as Dorothy in this deeply disturbing sequel to The Wizard of Oz. When she returns to that magical land, she finds everything in ruins. We literally can’t forget the Wheelers, the nightmarish creatures that represent the wheeled hospital beds at the insane asylum where Dorothy is being kept. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s been taken to a sanitarium, where doctors are preparing to give her electroshock therapy to cure Dorothy of her delusions about Oz?
I haven’t even gotten to Princess Mombi, the beautiful woman who keeps a collection of removable heads in glass cases so that she can change up her look whenever she wants. Return to Oz was a massive box-office flop, but in the years since, it has reached legendary status. Mostly thanks to those of us who were horribly scarred by watching it as kids.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Speaking of horribly scarred, The Dark Crystal is the one movie on this list that I refuse to ever watch again. Jim Henson and Frank Oz dug deep into the darkest corners of their imaginations for this world of Gelflings and Skesis. I know some people love it, but this one just isn’t my cup of tea. It’s too bad because I love the other collaboration between concept artist Brian Froud and Jim Henson. More on that later.
The 2019 prequel series on Netflix wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea either, unfortunately. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was canceled after just one season of 10 episodes.
I feel like Legend doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as the other dark fantasy movies of the era. Ridley Scott’s contribution to the genre stars baby-faced Tom Cruise as Jack, a naïve forest boy in love with Lili (Mia Sara, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Tim Curry is the literal devil who kidnaps and corrupts Lili, turning her into a dark version of herself in the famous dance sequence that had a big influence on baby goths like me.
Rewatching the trailer now, it’s clear that this was not marketed to kids. Yet fantasy movies—especially at the time—were supposed to be kid-friendly fare. I definitely watched this one growing up. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have seen it. Legend has the same production values as Blade Runner and nearly the same level of darkness. It’s absolutely not a movie for children, which is probably why it tanked at the box office.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
Although Who Framed Roger Rabbit is stuffed to the gills with familiar cartoon characters, it might be the most adult movie on this list. Bob Hoskins stars as Eddie Valiant, a washed-up private eye who hates Toons. He gets dragged into a murder mystery thanks to Roger Rabbit, a goofy Toon who’s been framed for murder.
This movie was marketed to kids, but it shouldn’t have been. The dirty jokes flew over my head as a kid, but c’mon: Jessica Rabbit. Not a kid-friendly character. Also not a kid-friendly character? Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), whose reveal in the final act of the movie was utterly terrifying. And who can forget the scene where Doom lowers the poor, whimpering cartoon shoe into the vat of Dip?
Time Bandits (1981)
This is a deep cut, but I adore Time Bandits so it earns a spot on my list. Terry Gilliam’s deeply strange fantasy film is a journey through time and space, to the very heart of darkness and back again. I watched this movie (and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) repeatedly as a kid, but I’m not sure it was good for me. Gilliam considered those two movies to be part of an unofficial trilogy with Brazil, which is for sure not a children’s movie.
Time Bandits follows Kevin as he is dragged through history by a group of, well, time bandits. They’re ransacking the past for riches, and he’s along for the ride. He meets Robin Hood (John Cleese) and Napoleon (Ian Holm), and he’s nearly adopted by King Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Eventually, they confront the embodiment of all Evil (David Warner), who has been manipulating them this whole time in order to get the map to creation that the bandits stole. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the ending of this movie was a major influence on my sense of humor.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Has there ever been a movie more beautiful, yet more traumatic, than The NeverEnding Story? This dark fantasy is an epic adventure featuring some of the most incredible practical effects of the 80s. It follows Bastian, a bookish young boy who is bullied at school and misunderstood by his widowed father. One day, he hides from his bullies in a bookshop and steals a copy of The NeverEnding Story.
Hiding in the attic of his school, Bastian starts to read about the young warrior Atreyu as he journeys through Fantasia to save the realm from The Nothing. Of course, everybody who watched his movie as a kid will instantly remember the scene where Arteyu’s horse succumbs to the Swamp of Sadness and starts sinking. Oh cool, an analogy for depression that I didn’t understand as a kid but find all too relatable now.
Following the success of Star Wars, George Lucas pivoted from sci-fi to fantasy. Ron Howard directed George Lucas’s screenplay, which follows a young Nelwyn named Willow who finds a baby, not knowing that she’s part of a prophecy to overthrow the evil queen Bavmorda. When Willow’s village is attacked, the elders decide that they must return the baby to her people, kicking off a quest through a fantasy realm. Willow meets Madmartigan, a mercenary imprisoned at a crossroads, and eventually a pack of brownies, a fairy queen, and Bavmorda’s beautiful warrior daughter, Sorsha.
The plot of Willow isn’t that different from Lord of the Rings, now that I think about it, except that they’re trying to protect a baby instead of destroying a cursed ring. It’s one of the best dark fantasy movies of the decade, thanks to wonderful performances by Davis and Kilmer, as well as the breakthrough special effects created by Industrial Light & Magic.
Although Labyrinth was a box-office failure, it holds a special place in the imaginations of countless kids who grew up watching it. In fact, Labyrinth is one of my top five favorite films of all time.
Jim Henson and Brian Froud collaborated with Monty Python alum Terry Jones on this marvelous fantasy film. However, I think we can all agree that it wouldn’t hold the same (dance) magic without David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. Henson always knew that he wanted a rock star for the role, and he considered Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson. I think we can all agree that he made the right choice.
A sequel/spin-off has been in the works since 2016, with Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson set to take over from Fede Álvarez. Honestly, if they cast Harry Styles as Jareth, I might be into it.
The Princess Bride (1987)
In my not-so-humble opinion, the best and most enduring family-friendly fantasy film of the 1980s is The Princess Bride. Cleverly framed as a story read to a sick little boy by his grandfather, it tells the tale of Westley and Buttercup, two beautiful young people who are destined to be together. The asides from the grandson help ground the story for contemporary audiences, keeping it from being too much of a “kissing book.”
Every casting decision is brilliant in this movie, from the radiant Robin Wright as Buttercup to Andre the Giant as Fezzik. Infinitely quotable—my mom and I still say, “Have fun storming the castle!” instead of goodbye sometimes—and gorgeously shot by director Rob Reiner, pretty much every frame of this movie is perfect. In fact, I think I need to watch it again right now…