The best comedy fantasies of all time, from Monty Python to The Princess Bride

Netflix’s hit series Disenchantment is the latest in a long line of beloved comedy fantasies. With season two about to arrive, Travis Johnson revisits the best of this very kooky genre.

Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s Disenchantment returns to Netflix shortly, with the second half of season one (don’t get me started on that practice…) dropping this Friday, September 20. Once again, we’ll thrill and guffaw to the adventures of Princess Bean (Abbi Jacobsen), Elfo the Elf (Nat Faxon), Luci the demon (Eric Andre) and all the other off-kilter denizens of Dreamland, the show’s cod-medieval fantasy setting.

Disenchantment isn’t the first series to dabble in fantasy elements, of course – there’s a long tradition of extracting the urine from fairy tales, folklore, fantasy epics, and ancient mythology. So, if Groening and company have given you a taste for this sport of thing, you could do worse than take a run at this lot…

The Court Jester (1956)

This is the movie to bring up whenever someone is singing the virtues of The Princess Bride, because pretty much everything that Reiner’s film does, Danny Kaye did 30 years earlier. This musical comedy sees Kaye as a hapless minstrel mistaken for Robin-Hood-lookalike The Black Fox, caught up in a plot to put the rightful heir back on the throne of England, which puts him on a collision course with raffish Basil Rathbone’s evil aristo.

Sharp-witted, sly but family friendly, The Court Jester is regarded as one of the best comedies of all time. It also boasts a sword duel between genius level physical comedian Kaye and former British Army Fencing Champion Rathbone, which is one for the books.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Well, it’s hard to go past this one, isn’t it? The Monty Python team’s first “proper” movie (1971’s And Now for Something Completely Different is basically an extended Flying Circus episode) sees the irreverent British comics tackle the Arthurian myth cycle.

Co-directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones (both of whom crop up elsewhere on the list) make a virtue out of the film’s extremely limited budget: most the castles are simply Scotland’s Doune Castle shot from different angles, while the coconut hoof-clop gag exists because the production could not afford horses. The whole thing is blisteringly funny as long as you don’t have one of those mates who never stops quoting the bloody thing – and even then, it’s still pretty funny.

Time Bandits (1981)

And here’s Terry Gilliam again, whose post-Python directing career could pretty much fill this article on its own. If we’re going to pick one Gilliam dreamscape to fill in for the lot, though, let it be this. Time Bandits sees imaginative everykid Kevin (Craig Warnock) shanghaied by a group of time travelling dwarfs (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purvis, et al) who are on a crime spree throughout history. They’re on the run from the Supreme Being but must also contend with Evil (David Warner) who is, well…it’s right there in the name.

Episodic and loose-limbed, Time Bandits is nonetheless a rollicking good time, buoyed by a string of fun cameos (John Cleese, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Michael Palin) and tone often imitated by the recent string of YA adaptations, but never bettered.

The Princess Bride (1987)

The “good bits” version. As Fred Savage’s dubious kid lies sick in bed, his cheek-pinching Grandpa (Peter Falk) reads him a story of “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” and we get to see it acted out by Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Wallace Shawn, André the Giant, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal and more.

Screenwriting legend William Goldman adapted his own 1973 novel and director Rob Reiner’s comedic sensibilities leaven the note-perfect fairytale plotting with some genuine gut-busters. Easily the best film on the list, and one of the best films of all time.

Erik the Viking (1989)

The sagas get a look-in as Tim Robbins takes on the title role for director Terry Jones. A nice guy for a Norse raider, our Erik can’t quite get his head around the whole “rape and pillage” thing. But when Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, seems to be on the cards, he’s doughty enough to lead a shipload of warriors off to awaken the Gods of Asgard in hopes of preventing the end of the world.

Jones’ comedic approach is much more slapdash than fellow ex-Python Terry Gilliam. But the unusual milieu makes it interesting, and the cast includes fellow Python veteran John Cleese as the antagonistic Halfdan the Black and Blackadder alumnus Tim McInnerney as a berserker with confidence problems.

Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989 – 1994)

You find some surprisingly sharp fare in British children’s television, as actors and writers who cut their teeth on the alternative comedy circuit and annual panto bring their weird sensibilities to the G-rated milieu. Thus, we get Tony “Baldrick” Robinson upending the Robin Hood stories to put the focus on a gutsy, proto-feminist Maid Marian (Kate Lonergan), who leads a band of outlaws against evil King John (Forbes Collins) and his henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robinson himself).

A bright, breezy musical comedy, some of Maid Marian’s pop culture references have dated badly, but its anarchic spirit still resonates. Plus, you get Danny John-Jules, aka The Cat from Red Dwarf as Rasta troubadour Barrington, which is fun.

Army of Darkness (1992)

Evil Dead was horror, Evil Dead 2 was a horror/comedy, but Army of Darkness leaves behind the intentional frights to embrace goofy high fantasy as chainsaw-handed idiot hero Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is flung back in time to the Middle Ages to once again battle the Deadite hordes.

Director Sam Raimi takes his cues from stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen, giving us battalions of evil skeletons for Ash and his knights to hew through while the big-chinned doofus drops quips and pratfalls with abandon. A true gem, and the exact moment when Campbell’s fingers brushed the trailing edge of mainstream stardom.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (1994 – 2001)

A twofer! Army of Darkness creative team Sam Raimi and Robert Tappert decamped to New Zealand to produce this pair of campy, anachronistic actioners. While Hercules, which stars Kevin Sorbo as the hunky hero and Michael Hurst as his best mate, Iolaus, came first, it was spin-off Xena which really attained cult status, in no small part thanks to the sapphic subtext (and sometimes just plain old text) underpinning the relationship between Lucy Lawless’s warrior on the road to redemption and staff-wielding galpal Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor).

A rather flexible approach to chronology and geography let Xena witness both the Fall of Troy and the rein of Julius Caesar, among other things, and if the thought of that bothers you, perhaps more straitened fare is more to your tastes. For its still-strong legion of fans, though, Xena (and, yeah, Hercules) remains one of the high points of ‘90s cult television.

Galavant (2015-2016)

When it’s off-form Galavant feels like The Princess Bride fan fiction. When it’s firing on all cylinders, though… well, it still feels like The Princess Bride fan fiction, but in a good way, and with Disney bona fides: creator Dan Fogelman wrote Tangled, working with songwriters Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.

All three came together for this two season enjoyable oddity, a fantasy musical about the adventures of the titular down-on-his-luck knight (Joshua Sasse), who never got over his true love Madalena (Mallory Jansen) choosing fame and fortune with evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson). Galavant’s main strength is the Broadway-level musical mastery that Menken and Slater bring to the table, which elevates the proceedings, even when the sometimes tangled plot gets in the way.