Director: Steve Barron
Starring Cast: Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Martin Short, Isabella Rossellini, Helena Bonham Carter, Rutger Hauer, James Earl Jones
Reel Reviews Rating:
Technically speaking, this wasn’t an actual movie that came out in theaters, but a made-for-TV miniseries. This translates into about 4 hours of hell for me. However, because my boyfriend foolishly rented it, and because I stupidly watched it, I’m doing this as a sort of public service announcement so you can avoid my fate.
As the title suggests, the movie focuses on the life of the legendary wizard Merlin (Neill, rocking a mullet). It takes us from Merlin’s creation by the eeeeeeeeevilll sorceress Queen Mab (Richardson), to his young n’ hunky years, to his middle-aged adulthood, and up to old age. Most of the movie however, deals with Merlin’s lifelong struggles against Mab. Ya see, the times in England, they be changin’. People are converting to Christianity and forgetting the whole magic nonsense. Mab doesn’t want things to change, so she creates Merlin as a weapon to fight this tide of change. When Merlin turns against her, Mab launches a private war against Merlin by corrupting the humans he tries to help out.
Naturally the movie covers the Excalibur/King Arthur story, but if you want a crash course in Arthurian mythology, you’re better off watching another movie since it takes about 2 1/2 hours into the movie before we finally see young Arthur pull the sword out of the stone.
So, where do I begin?
Let’s start with plot.
Needless to say, it was a watered-down version of Merlin’s origins, which is understandable since there are many different ways of telling this story. The movie plot was very straightforward and linear, as we follow Merlin meeting important people such as King Uther Pendragon, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, Morgan LeFay, and of course Arthur himself. However, as straightforward as it was, there were still several scenes unncessary to the plot. For example, there was too much focus on young Merlin’s wizard training. I found it pointless and felt that it was just an excuse for Martin Short (who played Queen Mab’s sycophant Frik) to try to be funny. It’s far more entertaining to watch Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts learning spells.
One thing that drove me crazy about Merlin was its schizophrenic nature. There are scenes which are supposed to be serious, but are shot in an amusing manner. For example, in some cases when Mab and Frik are walking, the camera speeds up to give the illusion that they’re walking very, very quickly. It looks funny, but the scene itself is not supposed to be funny. It’s as if the film doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. Of course there are many movies out there that blend comedy and drama, but Merlin does a very poor job at it.
Now, as for the actors. When you look at the starring cast, you see that these aren’t unknowns, nor are they B-actors. You’ve got Helena Bonham Carter, Isabella Rossellini, James Earl Jones, and Miranda Richardson. When I read this list on the DVD I thought to myself, well, this movie may not be so bad after all. These are primo actors.
Not only was there horrible miscasting involved in Merlin, but for some reason most of these seasoned, respected actors were so hammy, I thought bacon would come out of their mouths. It was downright awful to watch them. Sam Neill was totally unconvincing as Merlin. He seemed to act too “modern”, for lack of a better word. Miranda Richardson was annoying in her double role as Queen Mab and the Lady of the Lake. Her Mab was such a cartoon villian with goth attire (what’s with the purple hair??), and her Lady of the Lake was comatose. No, seriously. She’d be like, “Merrrrr…liiiiiiiiiin…you must. Find……a……good…….maaaaaaannn…” Rossellini was absolutely boring as Merlin’s love interest, Nimue. I often forgot she was in the movie. In yet another example of miscasting, why did they cast a girl with a British accent to play the young Nimue, when Rossellini has a thick Italian accent? And poor James Earl Jones wasn’t technically in the film, but did the voice of a talking mountain. Somehow, I’m betting that old James leaves this role out in his resume.
Surprsingly, some of the actors were actually ok. Helena Bonham Carter’s Morgan LeFay was quite entertaining, as was Rutger Hauer’s Lord Vertigern. Hauer has perfectly honed his skills at playing bad guys and overall jerks, and it shows even in this craptastic movie. Bonham Carter’s Morgan was a fine balance of a comedic and tragic character. She’s supposed to be evil and you’re supposed to hate her, but instead you laugh as she speaks with an Elmer Fudd accent (“I want the thwone”), and feel sorry for her when her own son turns against her.
Special effects were another thing that was botched in this film. They look practically homemade, like they were done by a 12 year old for a class project. For example, there’s a scene which involves a fire breathing dragon, whose flames looked unreal and cartoony. The dragon looked Photoshopped. I laughed my head off when I saw that scene.
I know what you’re thinking: since this is just a made-for-TV miniseries, we can’t expect high budget special effects. No way. There are so many tv shows that used special effects, and the quality is high caliber. Watch any episode of CSI, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Stargate. The special effects on these shows are amazing.
Now you might think, well maybe there wasn’t enough money in the Merlin budget for better special effects. Bullshit. If they could afford the fancy costumes and sets, rent all those horses, hire tons of extras, AND pay the salaries of the big name actors, then they should have had enough dough to make better special effects. No, they just did a half assed job on it, and it showed.
Some of you may think that I’m being overly critical towards Merlin. After all, it’s not *really* a movie so I shouldn’t hold it according to the same standards as a film shown in theaters. I disagree. There are many great movies made for TV. Granted, most are on HBO or Showtime, but still!
I was shocked to find on the IMDB that Merlin was actually nominated for 4 Golden Globes and even won a few Emmys. I’m thinking that either most of those wins/nominations are for technical categories like Best Sound or Best Costume, or that there were slim pickins in nominees in 1998.
Merlin gets 1 Reel from me, mainly only because of the big name, respected actors.
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- B movies
- Film Adaptation
- John Hughes films
- Miyazaki Films
- Social Commentary
- Specific Actors