Class is back in session at Hogwarts, with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hitting screens this week. Since the academy is a place where young witches and wizards practice their craft, we at Rotten Tomatoes thought it would be a good time to count down some of the most spellbinding mystics who’ve ever graced the big screen. The entrants on our list of memorable movie wizards share many of the same attributes: musty spell books, magic wands, and unkempt beards, as well as prickly people skills and the ability to rouse the dead. However, they’ve also provided many a fantasy film with magical moments. Read on for a compendium of cinema’s finest sorcerers! (And don’t forget to check out all the reviews for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.)
When we meet Akiro (Mako) in Conan the Barbarian, he’s not exactly on an upward trend, living a hermit-like existence and tending to an ancient cemetery. But when Conan happens by, the two of them become tight, which comes in handy later when Akiro is called upon to revive his muscle-bound pal from the dead. It’s a good career move; by the end of Conan the Destroyer, Akiro has a new gig as the chief wizard of Shadizar. In addition to sorcery, Akiro is a master in the mystical art of voiceover work, providing the narration for both Conan movies.
Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese) may not be the kindliest of wizards, but he has several qualities that set him apart from the ranks of cinematic sorcerers. He has the ability to blow stuff up, which he utilizes liberally (he even has a flame-throwing staff!). He speaks theatrically and portentously in a thick Scottish brogue (“Death awaits you all… with nasty, big, pointy teeth!” goes a typical oratorical flourish). And he wears an awesome hat with rams’ horns on it. He also helps guide King Arthur and his men to the Cave of Caerbannog, dispensing fireballs along in all directions with little discipline, but Arthur and his men fail to heed Tim’s dire warnings about the cave’s seemingly innocuous defender — with tragic results. A word of advice, kids: when a wizard — no matter how gruff and ill-tempered — offers insider knowledge, you should probably listen up.
Wizened and wheelchair-bound one minute, 10 feet tall and shooting laser beams out of his eyes the next, the ancient Chinese warlord Lo-Pan (James Hong) — a.k.a. David Lo-Pan, CEO of the Wing Kong Import-Export Trading Company — overcame a somewhat conflicted relationship with the mortal plane to wield a stack of fearsome powers that included a trio of weather-themed martial artists, championship-level hologram thumb-wrestling skills, and the ability to send people to the Hell of Upside-Down Sinners. He is also, so far as we know, the only wizard ever to utter the immortal words, “Now this really p—es me off to no end.” But the best thing about Lo-Pan has to be his raison d’être: For all his insults, kidnapping, and murdering, all he really wanted was a wife. Sure, he was a little picky — she had to have green eyes, a rather uncommon attribute in Chinese girls — but he kept trying for centuries, and who among us can’t respect that kind of tenacity?
Most of the wizards on our list either hold exalted positions on their local royal courts or act as magical free agents, but Willow‘s High Aldwin — played memorably by Hollywood legend Billy Barty — is a different breed of warlock, acting as a sort of mayor for the diminutive Nelwyns. Between his position as a beleaguered bureaucrat, his less-than-imposing stature, and the fact that his wizardry has more to do with an impressive gift for flimflam than anything truly magical, you might be tempted to dismiss the High Aldwin as an unworthy interloper on this list, but we ask you: Have you ever turned an apple into a bird, bossed an Ewok around, or determined which finger holds the power to control the universe? Didn’t think so.
Fast-talking Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) makes only a brief appearance in The Princess Bride when Fezzik and Inigo Montoya deposit an expired Westley at his doorstep. When we first meet him, it’s apparent Max is a slightly shifty old character with a prince-sized chip on his shoulder. He quickly informs Fezzik and Inigo that Westley is merely “mostly dead” and, before he agrees to revive him, proceeds to ask the hopeful duo how much money they have and whether or not their desire to revive Westley is based on the fact that he owes them a gambling debt. Max is clearly a curmudgeon and a cynic, and he only agrees to help Westley when Inigo informs him that doing so will mean pain and humiliation for the prince who fired him, but he ultimately proves he’s worthy of the “Miracle” in his name when he succeeds in bringing Westley back to life. Well, sort of… Westley remains partially paralyzed for pretty much the rest of the film.
OK, so the titular character in The Wizard of Oz (played by Frank Morgan) lacks the magic powers of virtually everyone else on this list. “My dear, I’m a very good man; I’m just a very bad wizard,” he tells Dorothy. However, most magicians have limits to their abilities, and at least the ruler of Oz has a knack for P.R. and a carnival barker’s penchant for spectacle. Just because the Wizard has cultivated an undeserved cult of personality doesn’t mean he’s lacking in wisdom; without him, the Scarecrow wouldn’t have earned his PhD in Thinkology from Emerald City State, and Dorothy would probably be stuck earning minimum wage at the Munchkinland IHOP and pining for Kansas on her lunch breaks. In other words, it’s worth paying at least some attention to the man behind the curtain.
For any consummate professional, there comes a time when you’ve gotten so good at what you do that boredom sets in, and it’s sometimes more fun to just sit back and watch someone else try to pinch-hit for you than it is to actually, you know, do your job. Such is the case with Dragonslayer‘s Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Sir Ralph Richardson), who decides he’d rather let one of the king’s bouncers get stabby with him than go to the trouble of leading a bothersome quest against the county dragon (the awesomely named Vermithrax Pejorative). Ulrich’s employees, an apprentice named Galen (Peter MacNicol) and an aged servant named Hodge (Sydney Bromley), are understandably upset about Ulrich’s demise, but what they don’t know — and what Galen ultimately discovers after risking his neck for about an hour and a half — is that Ulrich’s soul has burrowed into an amulet, allowing him to surreptitiously hitch a ride and, ultimately, save the day. We imagine Galen must have been a little annoyed, but hey — it’s Peter MacNicol. What’s he gonna do?
Some of the other wizards on this list may have wielded their power with a little more glitz and/or state-of-the-art special effects, but few could claim the sort of crucial connection to the Earth boasted by Excalibur‘s Merlin (Nicol Williamson) — he was tragically poked in the gut when Arthur, in a fit of rage, stabbed his enchanted sword into the ground — and, even more importantly, Merlin rocked what was indisputably the shiniest skullcap in all of the Dark Ages. And who else would be crafty enough to outwit an inveterate horndog like Uther Pendragon, keep a dragon on call, and cast a spell as wicked cool as the Charm of Making? No one, that’s who. Mess with Merlin, and — as the treacherous Morgana discovered, much to her chagrin — you’re liable to end up on the wrong end of a stranglin’. Whoa! Like lightning!
What does it take to lead a secret organization dedicated to the protection of the good, run a School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for children, and help guide and prepare one gifted student for his lot in life? We couldn’t tell you, but the aged yet formidable headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, probably could. Throughout all of young Harry Potter’s tutelage, Dumbledore (played by Richard Harris and Michael Gambon) remains his faithful mentor and protector, and while his powers are never in question, his unwavering stance against evil might be his greatest strength. Not only must he ensure the school itself runs smoothly, but he also must battle adversaries who rise up within its ranks and secure the safety of its most important student. Sure, there are moments when he flexes his magical prowess, and they are spectacular moments, but when the chips are down and Hogwarts finds itself in disarray time and again, it’s the strength of Dumbledore’s character that shines brighter than any thunderbolt or fireball he might rain down upon his foes. In short, without Dumbledore’s guidance, Harry might have met his end rather early, and we’d be looking at a two-book/film series where the bad guys win.
Unlike some of the other entries on this list, Gandalf is a full-fledged, bona fide, staff-wielding, pointy-hat wearing wizard in the most traditional sense of the word. If you were raised on fantasy storybooks, there’s a good chance the first depictions of wizards you encountered were strikingly similar to Ian McKellen’s portrayal of the character from the Lord of the Rings epic. But Gandalf embodies more than just the prototypical wizard aesthetic; he also behaves very much in the way that one might expect a wizard to behave. In Peter Jackson’s screen version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series, Gandalf regularly dispenses wisdom to his loved ones, engages in magical battles with a fire-breathing demon and a rival wizard, travels on the backs of giant eagles and lightning-fast horses, and leads a comeback charge against an army of fiends, among other things, and he performs these great feats with equal measures of menacing ferocity and grandfatherly charm. Oh, and did we mention he essentially returns from the depths of oblivion as a brighter, more awesome version of himself? Yeah, Gandalf pretty much rules.
Finally, we leave you with a musical tribute to wizards, courtesy of Black Sabbath:
Written by Jeff Giles, Ryan Fujitani, and Tim Ryan.