Here’s a fun fact: Prior to 2001’s releases of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, fantasy movies were frequently silly, low-budget shlockfests that actors only wanted to make so they could eat something other than whatever they scraped from under their fridge for another month.
(For the record, I am told that this lifestyle — I like to call it Underfridging — is good for bolstering your immune system. On the other hand, high potential for scurvy. Your call.)
And since the Harry Potter series has spanned eight films and employed every single actor in Britain at least once (twice in the case of Warwick Davis), you know there’s a treasure trove of painfully cheesy fantasy movies lurking in their collective resumes. Let’s take a look at some of them!
Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) in Krull
Krull is one of those ultra-masculine 80s Fantasy-Action films that blew up after Arnie showed everyone how it was done in Conan the Barbarian. There’s a prince trying to rescue a princess from some alien creature and fire mares and the kind of stuff you saw painted on the side of an unwashed dude’s van as a matter of course in those days. More interesting, though, is that it features very early roles by Liam Neeson and Hagrid himself, Robbie Coltrane. Also of note– his character, Rhun, looks remarkably like Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Warwick Davis (Prof. Flitwick/Griphook) in Willow
When you’re a little person in Hollywood, it’s probably somewhere in your contract that you have to do a fantasy film at some point. (And a sci-fi flick and a mismatched buddy cop movie and so on and so forth.)
But, to be fair, Willow is actually a pretty fun movie about kids with destinies and a bad-ass young Val Kilmer and stuff. It’s what put Warwick Davis on the map as an actual actor instead of being relegated to a life of showing up at conventions as “the Ewok dude.” They even gave the guy top billing!
And, come on, it’s probably one of the last objectively good things George Lucas was involved with (depending on your feelings about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange) and Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter) in Merlin
Merlin, the TV-miniseries retroactively deemed to be a feature film, has not one, but two future Harry Potter cast members (and it’s not the only one on this list, either.) Sam Neill stars as Merlin (with nary a velociraptor in sight), whose life story is the basis of the film.
Featured in supporting roles, however, are Helena Bonham Carter and Miranda Richardson as Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s deformed sister who gets turned beautiful and then they knock boots and have a kid who’s Arthur’s nemesis… it’s complicated) and Queen Mab/The Lady of the Lake (the creepy fairy goddess and her equally creepy sister who are kinda Merlin’s fathers or something… look, the whole thing’s bizarre) respectively.
It’s got the effects and production values you’d expect for a late 90s made-for-TV fantasy film and it takes a lot of liberties with Arthurian legends (not as many as you’d expect, though), but if you can put that past you, it’s actually not a bad way to spend three hours on a Saturday evening because your date stood you up (again).
Maggie Smith (Prof. McGonagall) in Hook
Hook is the 1991 sequel/rejiggering of the Peter Pan mythos (featuring Robin Williams as arguably the hairiest man to ever play Peter Pan), and it’s got basically anything you could ask for… as long as what you’re asking for is Dustin Hoffman chewing the scenery, Bob Hoskins being crazy awesome, Julia Roberts playing a tiny version of herself (a precursor to her role as herself in Ocean’s Twelve, perhaps), and RUFIOOOOOOOO!
But one thing you might not remember from the film is Maggie Smith‘s brief role as an elderly version of the original Wendy from J.M. Barrie’s stories. (The same character is also played by a teenage Gwyneth Paltrow in flashback sequences.) She’s got the same kind of grandmotherly vibe she does as Prof. McGonagall, so it’s kind of a wonder the internet has yet to do a fan remix that makes the whole thing look like it’s set in the Harry Potter universe.
John Hurt (Ollivander) in The Black Cauldron and Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings
Yeah, John Hurt‘s role in the Harry Potter films is technically a minor one, but he has done voices for two notable animated fantasy classics. In The Black Cauldron (the Disney film that everyone forgets), he plays The Horned King, easily the creepiest villain they’ve churned out short of when The Devil himself shows up in Fantasia. He also seems to be the only undead Disney villain running around and was terrifying enough to kids to earn the film a PG rating (a first for Disney) so he’s got those things going for him as well.
Crazier still, though, is that Hurt got a chance to play none other than nerd favorite Aragorn in the Ralph Bakshi animated version of The Lord of the Rings, where he looked oddly Native American but sounded totally British. The character’s design was based on Hurt’s facial features and stuff… but come on, that’s weird.
Michael Gambon (Prof. Dumbledore) and Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley) in Sleepy Hollow
A mere two years before the first Harry Potter film, Tim Burton released Sleepy Hollow, a fantasy/horror hybrid that made Christopher Walken scary without requiring him to talk about jamming watches up his butt (or talk at all, really). But, it also featured several future Harry Potter alums. First, there’s Richard Griffiths as the town’s poor, wonk-eyed magistrate who ends up the first onscreen victim of The Headless Horseman. (He’s the guy whose head cartoonishly spins around when The Horseman finally decapitates him.)
Then, there’s Michael Gambon as Baltus Van Tassel, father of Christina Ricci’s Katrina. And who played his wife? Well that’d be none other than Miranda Richardson, once again, as Katrina’s evil, unnamed stepmother. But she already got on this list once, so she can take the backseat on this one. Quit hogging the spotlight.
David Thewlis (Prof. Lupin) and Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy) in Dragonheart
Dragonheart is one of those movies that tried to lump cheese on top of cheese. It’s got every single medieval fantasy trope there is. A noble, but disgraced knight, a mythical being that’s the last of its kind, an evil king. It might as well have a scene where a fairy farts out a rendition of “Greensleeves.” But, it’s not a horrible movie, by any means. Sean Connery actually does a commendable job as a voice actor, and as long as Dennis Quaid manages not to be as crazy as his brother, he can get away with a lot in my eyes.
And then David Thewlis puts on a teeth-grinding performance as a prissy, bratty king. You hate him for it, but he’s just every evil royalty stock character ever, all mixed into one. Jason Isaacs gets far less screen time, spending a few scenes playing a dumbass medieval version of the king’s personal assistant. (Note to self- Pitch medieval version of Entourage featuring a king and his jesters and messengers and stuff.)
Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn) in The Borrowers
Seeing as how all the kids in the Harry Potter films were, like, twelve years old when the series got off the ground, you wouldn’t think any of them had time to act in any kind of fantasy movies, but there you’d be wrong. A young Tom Felton appeared at the tender age of nine in 1997’s The Borrowers.
The movie itself is nothing to write home about, being, you know, a John Goodman vehicle and everything, but hey, just look at the kid in that behind the scenes clip there. He was just a kid who enjoyed normal kid stuff and had a chinchilla named Stanley. He’s just like us! Except he got cast as one of the most likable child villains in recent cinema and is probably worth millions now. Ah well. Not only is Felton in this one, but his dad in the film is played by Jim Broadbent, who’d later play Prof. Slughorn. So, he went from small person with weird hair to… average height person with weird hair. Hey, progress is progress!