Like so many of the Monsters & Mullets features, Legend is clearly an ambitious, high-concept labor of love. But what happens when an up-and-coming auteur best known for his dark sci fi horror movies tries to take on young adult-oriented fantasy in a world where commercial success is the production studio's bottom line? The script gets cut, the film gets shortened, test audiences get consulted, studio heads get fussy, and the final product gets... well, lessened. The first cut of Legend was 125 minutes long. The version that hit the theatres? A limping eight-nine minutes.
The studio balked, in part, because they were worried the film was too dark and complicated. But the result, while no less dark, is a strange and scattershot affair, featuring a couple of related but not especially coherent plots squashed uneasily together. And there are a lot of missteps: the acting is hit or miss, the plot has been streamlined into idiocy, props and subplots and supporting characters are introduced and dropped seemingly at random, and Tom Cruise is egregiously miscast.
But there’s something almost great hidden deep (very deep) within the heart of this movie.
Once, long ago [a screencrawl narrates] before there was such a thing as time, the world was shrouded in darkness. Then came the splendor of light, bringing life and love into the Universe, and the Lord of Darkness retreated deep into the shadows of the earth, plotting his return to power….by banishing light forever. But precious light is protected, harbored in the souls of Unicorns, the most mystical of all creatures. Unicorns are safe from the Lord of Darkness, they can only be found by the purest of mortals…. Such a mortal is Jack, who lives in solitude with the animals of the forest. A beautiful girl named Lily loves Jack with all her heart. In their innocence, they belive only goodness exists in the world. Together they will learn that there can be no good without evil…. No love without hate…. No heaven without hell…. No light without darkness. The harmony of the Universe depends upon an eternal balance. Out of the struggle to maintain this balance comes the birth of Legends.
[Sic, sic, sic.] Everything clear? We’re about to watch a movie about Unicorns giving birth to ellipses and legends. Moving on!
Fade up on Tim Curry, in full demon makeup and horns, lamenting his sad state as the Lord of Darkness. “I’m alone,” Darkness moans to a goblin crony, “and impotent.” Aw, you guys. The Lord of Darkness just wants a girlfriend! The goblin crony is a little taken aback, so Darkness gets huffy and tells him to go kill his archnemeses, the unicorns.
The scene changes and we meet one of the major setpieces of the film – the Enchanted Forest. It is a stunning set, and introduces what will become a visual hallmark of the movie: stuff floating in the air. Seriously, the film is awash in things floating around – petals, fluff, sparkles, bubbles, glitter, rain, snow, dust, smoke, steam – if it can hang in the air, it’ll float by eventually. This lends the film a certain dreamy aesthetic, but is also intensely distracting.
Anyway, through our Enchanted Forest skips our Pretty Pretty Princess heroine, Lily. She’s wearing a long white gown and another hallmark of the movie: sparkles. Seriously, everything sparkles. Lily stagily frolics through her fluff-filled forest, shadowed by the goblin, who believes she’ll lead him to the unicorns. First, though, she leads us to Tom Cruise. Tom, sporting a raggedy Peter Pan-esque costume and some spectacular hair extensions, hops out of the trees and they make out for a bit ‘cause they wuuuuv each other. He offers to take her to go check out the unicorns, in an English accent so awful it would make Kevin Costner cringe.
Tom (the Jack of our introductory screencrawl) and Lily head out to go see the unicorns, the goblin still tagging along. The unicorns are, of course, sparkly white horses with sparkly gold horns pasted to their sparkly, sparkly foreheads. Lily is very impressed and wants to go pat one, to Tom’s horror. She ignores his remonstrances and does so. While she’s distracting a unicorn, however, the goblin shoots it with a poisoned dart. The unicorn splits and Tom gets sulky with Lily. Not for long, though! She giggles and sparkles and makes a speech about how being a princess means she can set challenges for her suitors and then tosses a ring into a nearby pool. But, being a girl and therefore inconsistent, she then gets upset when Tom goes after it. Meanwhile, the goblin has relieved the unicorn of its horn and heads out to go cause a little mischief and mayhem before handing the horn over to the Lord of Darkness. The clouds roll in and the stuff in the air changes from fluff and petals to rain and snow. Tom and Lily get separated. Lily wanders around for a while, weeping, and winds up hanging out with the dead unicorn and its living mate. Tom falls asleep in the snow. As one does. The goblins capture Lily and the living unicorn, and Tom makes some new friends – a pre-pubescent male elf with the voice of a post-menopausal smoker called Gump, a Christmas light on a string, and some comedically drunk, Irish-accented leprechaun-things with names like “Screwball.” They exposition a bit and do shots out of acorns. As one does in the middle of a snowstorm.
Gump takes Tom off to find enchanted armor and a magical sword, while Lily runs around the Lord of Darkness’ castle/dungeon in comely deshabille. (Establishing shots suggest that Darks lives in a castle, but the plot and interior shots indicate that he’s actually underground.) Outfitted in sparkly gold scale-armor, Tom and company head through a swamp to Darkness’ castle-thinger. A swamp-hag eats one of the leprechauns, but no one seems too upset about it. Tom & Co. cleverly fall through a hole and into a dungeon cell. Tom has to convince the Christmas light, a sprite called Oona, to go get the key. In so doing, he reveals that she’s actually girl-sized and has a crazy-intense crush on him. She sulks off but returns with the key. Our heroes head out into the castle/dungeon to find the unicorn.
Lily, meanwhile, is having adventures of her own. While wandering around she stumbles on a table piled high with jewelry and gemstones – Darkness’ initial sortie in his attempt to seduce her. She contains her urge to play dress-up until a mysterious dancing figure pulls her into a waltz. Suddenly Lily is wearing an outfit fit for a demon queen, all black and mesh and high collars and a neckline that plunges down to her navel. Enter the Lord of Darkness. They argue a bit and he reveals that he really just wants someone to talk to. And, judging by the face he pulls when she proposes to slit the unicorn's throat, someone to whisper dirty, murderous nothings into his ear. (See O Face, below.) Lily asks to kill the unicorn and Darks delightedly accedes. Could she be... evil?
Tom & Co. are engaged in their own strategizing; after battling a couple of hooded heavies in a massive kitchen they start setting up giant metal plates, in order to direct a ray of sunlight into the depths of the castle/dungeon/thing. Then they find Darkness and Lily. Tom gets a little worked up at seeing his pure and innocent girlfriend totted up in black lipstick and cleavage-baring bad-girl gear, looking for all intents and purposes like she’s about to kill a unicorn. But Lily’s got everyone fooled, and instead frees the animal. Darks smacks her aside with a fantastically fake backhand and everyone (except Lily, of course, because girls can’t fight) starts having at it. Eventually a ray of light is reflected onto Darkness, disorienting him just enough to let Tom spike him with a unicorn’s horn. Darks speechifies a bit about how he can never be defeated and then gets… blown into outer space? From his dungeon?
Fast forward a bit, I guess. Lily is back in her white Pretty Pretty Princess gown of purity-n-innocence, asleep on a bower of violets and, like, puppy dogs and fairy dust. Tom, back in his Peter Pan outfit, leaps into the pool from the beginning of the movie and retrieves her ring. His hair now slicked sexily back, Tom kisses her awake and tells her he loves her. She also loves him! And now they can marry, yay! Then they literally run off into the sunset, pausing only to look back and wave at the unicorns, leprechauns, fairy and Gump, all of whom wave back. Except the unicorns, who are clearly wondering where their nosebags are. All this while the most amazing song ever in the history of ever plays us into the credits:
Legends can be now and forever,
Teaching us to love for goodness sake.
Legends can be now and forever,
Loved by the sun.
Loved by the sun!
We get one last shot of the Lord of Darkness, laughing evilly, before the screen goes black - one last chance to say goodbye to the only really compelling character in the entire film, and a nice palliative to the song, which is still fucking going:
Only lightning strikes all that's evil
Teaching us to love for goodness sake
Hear the music of love eternal
Teaching us to reach for goodness sake
Legends can be now and forever
Teaching us to love for goodness sake.
Legend is actually three movies in as one. There's the fairly standard high fantasy "poor boy meets rich girl, boy loses girl to enormous terrifying fantasy bad guy, boy defeats bad guy with magic sword and magic armor, boy gets girl back" story we’ve all been bored by since we were five. Then there’s the strange children’s movie slapstick stuff, represented by the leprechauns and goblins. They run around and bump into things and talk in comically exaggerated voices and accents and make dumb mistakes and YELL CONSTANTLY while wandering around on the peripheries of the other two movies, stars of their own utterly nonsensical film about klutzy short people with enormous hairy ears.
And then there’s the romance; the twisted beauty and the beast love story hidden deep down inside this otherwise problematic film. The star of this movie is the terrible, terrifying monster - a creature of profound power, and profound isolation. He falls for a girl. She meets his advances with scorn; he tries to temper his reactions to her rejection enough so that she can see the lonely man inside him. Sure, he’s a giant, red, glowing-eyed, bull-horned, fire-shooting, cloven-hoofed demon lord bent on destroying all joy and light… but who's to say he doesn't deserve love? Don't we all just want someone to talk to? Ridley Scott was inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast while working on Legend, and it shows. The scenes between Tim Curry and Mia Sara are far and away the best and most compelling of the entire movie; unlike the giant fish-monster in Krull, who wanted the girl because she was prophesized to be the mother of the eventual lord of the universe, Curry’s Lord of Darkness actually loves his captive princess. Or he’s super horny. But he’s definitely lonely and desperately wants someone to talk to. It’s a strange and affecting side-element to the film, one that's nearly lost in the shuffle of nonsensical plot and mediocre acting... but really, secretly wonderful, and nearly makes sitting through the rest of the movie worthwhile.
Legend isn’t wholly terrible. The physical product is astonishingly beautiful, from the jaw-dropping forest set to the Lord of Darkness’ slimy clam-shell-shaped throne. And the makeup and prosthetics are equally stunning, especially Tim Curry’s. (If the goblin crony’s rictal smile looks familiar, it should - the same artist did Jack Nicholson’s Joker makeup in 1989’s Batman.)
And then there's Tim Curry. I was expecting that he'd Palance his way through this one, but his performance is about as restrained and elegant as it could be, considering the fact that he's playing a half-naked red demon with fake three-foot-long horns. He lends his character a depth and gravitas unexpected and unrequired from a fantasy-film baddie, and it's a better film for him. Plus, there's that voice, that whisky-smooth, knee-weakening basso profundo of his. One almost forgets that this is yet another high fantasy film with an English-accented villain.
But Legend isn’t even a quarter as good as it should be. At least some of the blame lies with the studio; the story has been cut so badly the plot is only barely coherent, and there isn’t enough character development to hang a hat on. But a lot of the blame lies with Tom Cruse and Mia Sara, who must but cannot carry the movie. Cruise is an actor best known for his charisma and million-megawatt smile, neither of which get much exercise in Legend. He looks awkward and uncomfortable… and, frankly, silly. And he looks like he knows it. Sara, meanwhile, only ever really comes alive in her scenes with Curry; otherwise she’s only required to flit around and giggle and look pretty, and she’s simply not a strong enough actor to pull off making pretty-giggle-flitting interesting.
There’s a 113-minute cut of the movie available out there somewhere, and I’ll gladly write a follow-up to this post after I’ve manage to nab a copy.
Monsters: Many! The Lord of Darkness and goblins and elves and leprechauns and sprites and unicorns and befanged heavies! And every last one of them covered in sparkles!
Mullets: Tom Cruise sports the world's rattiest ponytail.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: One dead lady (victim) and one princess who pretends to like a guy for her own ends (hooker), gets kidnapped and slapped around (victim) and cries a lot (doormat). She does ultimately kind of save the unicorn, but one good deed does not mitigate a movie's worth of HVDing.
Destroying my Childhood by Inches: I actually don't have any complaints - no one seems to want to remake Legend, and fans are trying desperately to find and release the original 125-minute cut.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: I split the placement up so that Legend: the good bits falls between Hawk the Slayer and The Neverending Story, while Legend: the bad bits is between Hawk and Excalibur. (Photo to follow.)