Several sub-categories of fantasy films can be identified, although the delineations between these subgenres, much as in fantasy literature, are somewhat fluid.
The most common fantasy subgenres depicted in movies are High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. Both categories typically employ quasi-medieval settings, wizards, magical creatures and other elements commonly associated with fantasy stories.
High Fantasy films tend to feature a more richly developed fantasy world, and may also be more character-oriented or thematically complex. Often, they feature a hero of humble origins and a clear distinction between good and evil set against each other in an epic struggle. Many scholars cite J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings novel as the prototypical modern example of High Fantasy in literature, and the recent Peter Jackson film adaptation of the books is a good example of the High Fantasy subgenre on the silver screen.
Sword and Sorcery movies tend to be more plot-driven than high fantasy and focus heavily on action sequences, often pitting a physically powerful but unsophisticated warrior against an evil wizard or other supernaturally endowed enemy. Although Sword and Sorcery films sometimes describe an epic battle between good and evil similar to those found in many High Fantasy movies, they may alternately present the hero as having more immediate motivations, such as the need to protect a vulnerable maiden or village, or even being driven by the desire for vengeance.
The 1982 film adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian, for example, is a personal (non-epic) story concerning the hero's quest for revenge and his efforts to thwart a single megalomaniac—while saving a beautiful princess in the process. Some critics refer to such films by the term Sword and Sandal rather than Sword and Sorcery, although others would maintain that the Sword and Sandal label should be reserved only for the subset of fantasy films set in ancient times on the planet Earth, and still others would broaden the term to encompass films that have no fantastic elements whatsoever. To some, the term Sword and Sandal has pejorative connotations, designating a film with a low-quality script, bad acting, and poor production values.
Another important subgenre of fantasy films that has become more popular in recent years is contemporary fantasy. Such films feature magical effects or supernatural occurrences happening in the "real" world of today.
Films with live action and animation such as Disney's Mary Poppins, Pete's Dragon, Enchanted, and the Robert Zemeckis film Who Framed Roger Rabbit are also fantasy films although are more often referred to as Live action/animation hybrids (2 of those are also classified as musicals).
Fantasy films set in the afterlife, called Bangsian Fantasy, are less common, although films such as the 1991 Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life would likely qualify. Other uncommon subgenres include Historical Fantasy and Romantic Fantasy, although 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl successfully incorporated elements of both.
As noted above, superhero movies and fairy tale films might each be considered subgenres of fantasy films, although most would classify them as altogether separate movie genres.