Review by Guido Henkel & Lieu Pham
Artisan Home Entertainment
Earlier this year a stunning TV mini-series was announced on the NBC network, featuring a remarkable cast and some very interesting special effects. When it finally aired in April, it turned out that “Merlin” was actually delivering what it promised. A star studded film with an interesting story that was extremely well told, combined with an exotic medieval world of magic and special effects. “Merlin” was clearly the brightest TV highlight of 1998 and now, Artisan is bringing you this film on DVD. Liberated from the all-too-numerous, obnoxious commercial breaks, and satellite or cable interferences, this film is finally allowed to completely unfold as a remarkably well crafted tale.
The film is a retrospective with Merlin (Sam Neill) as the central character looking back on his own life. Magically created by Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson), he was born in the woods and raised by his nurse, unbeknownst of his true heritage, until one day he
discovers his magical abilities. By that time Mab calls him to her side, where her humble servant, the witty gnome Frik (Martin Short) strenuously tries to teach him all the secrets of magic.
Mab is a character of legends, of old pagan traditions, called the Old Ways. When during the 6th century, Christianity spreads even in England, she is afraid the Old Ways will be forgotten and with them, will she, and all the other mythical creatures, like her sister, the Lady Of The Lake. She created Merlin in hope he could help her banish Christianity and re-establish the old codes of the Old Ways. But Merlin has a mind of his own and despises Mab’s evil, treacherous nature and the way she influences people and their fate, in order to keep their pagan religion and beliefs alive. He dislikes the use of magic to tamper with people’s destinies and finally swears never to use it again. But Mab, seeing Merlin as her strongest and most powerful weapon against Christianity, forges sinister plans to make Merlin break his own oath, and puts everyone he loves in jeopardy. When she goes so far as to sacrifice the love of his life, Nimue (Isabella Rosselini), to a dragon, she finally succeeds to break Merlin. He is using magic to save her. Merlin is now on a rampage, doing everything in his power to fight Mab. To destroy his own mother for a better world!
To be honest, I have been highly anticipating this disc, from the day I first saw “Merlin” on TV. It is one of those few really good fantasy movies and does not utilize the overused muscle-packed Conan-type hero as its main character, and it has stunning production values for a TV production. Sam Neill’s performance as Merlin is riveting and he alone could certainly carry the entire film. The story is delicately balancing good and evil, putting the characters in situation, where they have to make decisions that are not always simply good or bad. Even Mab, while being the film’s antagonist, is not entirely evil. She is a victim of her own nature and carries a certain amount of sympathy that is coming across perfectly well through Miranda Richardson’s soaring portrayal. Her dialogues are witty and clever, and whenever she has a dispute with the educated and open-minded Merlin himself, the characters exhibit a fascinating eloquence and depth. Richardson’s portrayal of Mab is quickly becoming the focal point of the story, on and off-screen. Martin Short’s character of Frik is as colorful as it can be. Literally enslaved by Mab, he is following her every command, yet never loses his human touch if that is at all possible for a gnome. If you think of Short as a fast-tongued comedian only, think again. He displays an amazing array of flexibility in this truly tragic character. Having a strong cast with stars like Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Helena Bonham Carter, Rutger Hauer, Martin Short, James Earl Jones and Isabella Rosselini, this film is almost in league with major feature film productions, which was clearly anticipated and one of the filmmakers’ conscious goals. Immediately the film got nominated for 15 Emmy awards and with its excellent presentation, it marks a milestone in TV miniseries history.
Merlin himself if a mythic character of English legends. He always appeared as part of the Arthurian lore as the King’s protector and consultant. Hardly ever has the life of Merlin been touched and this is where the film makes a difference. Telling the lifetime story of the legendary magician through his very own eyes creates an interesting tale about English history. It covers the story of numerous kings, including the tyrant King Uther and, of course, King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. The film puts a new spin on the issue, by not making Arthur the central point of focus, but Merlin, the advisor who is standing beside the king, watching the events and even interfering every once in a while. After all Merlin is still half human, and as a human being he, too, makes mistakes, which inevitably strengthen Mab’s ways and thus usually end in tragedies. It is an exciting roller-coaster ride through a part of Britain’s history without unnecessarily glorifying the era. It clearly shows that Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail and the Knights of the Roundtable were only a small episode in the long life of this mythical figure.
Unlike many other TV productions, “Merlin” had a considerable budget of $30 mio, which has been put to good use on various ends of the production. Not only did it allow the filmmakers to make good use of state-of the-art computer enhanced special effects, but it also allowed them to shoot the entire film on location in England, the geographic and historic home of Merlin. Interiors were shot on the Pinewood Studio soundstages, while exteriors were done in Wales, one of Britain’s most charming and enchanting regions. It helps setting the mood for the film right from the start and this continuity is never broken. The remarkable special effects perfectly blend with the live action footage for the most part and create the truly magical world of “Merlin”. Their number is vast and yet, they never seem superficial or “Cheesy”, which is an absolute novelty for TV mini-series productions. Just think of the CGI whale in “Moby Dick” only one month earlier for example, which seemed like an early demo of first generation computer graphics by comparison. No doubt, the fact that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop has been associated with “Merlin” helped immensely to breathe life and personality into the numerous special effects. Still, a few of the special effects, namely the dragon and the griphons, are not exactly state-of-the-art, as they appear flat, stiff, wooden and do not integrate too well in the complex lighting scenarios they have been placed in. Considering the movie’s overall tight deadlines and the sheer amount of other excellent effect work done on this film, they are easily excused.
The film also boasts an impressive and faithful production design and colorful costumes. Both have a credible quality about themselves that immediately allows you to place the story of the film in the correct temporary era and geographical location. Beautifully designed and staged, the intricate production design is yet another remarkable highlight of the film.
Artisan Entertainment have now released this Hallmark production on DVD for everyone to behold in its full glory. The disc’s image quality is superb and, just like the film itself, leaves nothing to be desired. The image is sharp and beautifully rendered without any signs of pixelation. The colors are vivid, strong and naturally rendered with deep and solid blacks, clearly enhancing and adding to the film’s magical visual attributes. Since the film was created for TV in the first place, it was shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which fits every standard TV screen. Thus, this DVD disc reproduces the film in the same fullscreen aspect ratio, but adds considerable detail and visual depth to the material that was lost during its original airing. The RSDL disc also contains a rather extensive 20-minute documentary that takes you behind the scenes of the production of Merlin and sheds light on many aspects of the film’s creation and very extensive production and background notes.
Trevor Jones has firmly established himself as an important film music composer in Hollywood. Credited with films like “Dark City”, “G.I. Jane”, “Cliffhanger” or “The Last Of The Mohicans”, Jones is one of the few composers who have a very strong signature in their material. His soundtracks are immediately recognizable, just as Danny Elfman’s or John Williams’. Born in South Africa, Jones has spend considerable time in England to study music where eventually Jim Henson recognized his talent and put it to use in his films “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth”. During that time already his work was indicative for a successful career. What makes his work so notable is that Jones is in fact one of the few composers today, who manage to create rooted fantasy themes and motives that are neither overblown and too heroic, nor too cliché-y and typically medieval. Surely this is one of the reasons why he gets called in whenever filmmakers try to create fantastic worlds that still have their roots in reality. The score he delivered for “Merlin” is once again a perfect example for this quality, as it conveys enough whimsical magic to elevate the film over a traditional folklore saga, while maintaining a serious note throughout that helps carrying the drama of the story. The disc contains a well produced and mixed Dolby Surround soundtrack.
I am usually very hesitant to watch TV miniseries, especially after having been burned so many times in the past with poor production values, bad scripts, stiff acting and artificially stretched plots to rake in more advertising dollars. From the first trailer, “Merlin” looked promising and I was very excited when the final film did not disappoint and even exceeded my expectations. It is a refreshing fantasy story that contains enough values and highlights to make many feature film productions these days look very pale by comparison. There is so much to say about this film, that I could go on forever.
If you missed “Merlin” on TV, go, get it now on this great DVD! If you have seen it during its initial airing, I am sure, you have been eagerly awaiting this DVD release. It is a flamboyant adventure that finally makes a legendary character like Merlin tangible, while also bringing history to life.
Reviews and Comments
On the heels of the successful television venture The Odyssey is this less solid adaptation of the life of Merlin. Sam Neill is a good choice in the title role, Helena Bonham Carter is fine in the Morgan de Fey role, and Isabella Rossellini is good even though her character, Nimue, is hopelessly watered down from that of the original legend (the movie's conclusion, for instance, is a groaner). Other members of this all-star cast, including Rutger Hauer and Miranda Richardson, are less than satisfying.
The film is littered throughout with special effects, mostly gratuitous, often distracting. Unlike the story-propelling purpose the special effects of The Odyssey had, here most of them are to show off fancy CGI tricks. It's too bad they take up so much screen time, too, because the second half of the movie is too rushed to portray the development of the characters properly.
Even so, it's engaging to see the full life of Merlin done reasonable justice in a movie. Amidst the jumble of self-serving special effects, there are moments of genuine creativity. Its many flaws aside, I enjoyed the production on a strict entertainment level.
Merlin: the Wizard Who Doesn't
May 27 '01 (Updated Jun 24 '01)
Arthurian legend is always fun. Sam Neill is a great actor.
Not much script to work with. A lot of hokey special effects
The Bottom Line
A pleasant retelling of the Arthurian legend from an interesting point of view, but needs to better develop secondary characters
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Merlin (Sam Neill) is a wizard. He was trained by Frick (Martin Short) who works for Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson.) Frick reports to Queen Mab that Merlin could be the greatest wizard ever, except he doesn't really like magic. That's too bad, because some of the magic we get to see is interesting.
You should know right up front, I am a big Arthurian fan. This retelling gives us interesting insight to the story from another point of view. It helps that Sam Neill is such a fine actor. Seeing this movie from Merlin's perspective humanizes the wizard. In normal Arthurian tellings, Merlin is rather other-worldly. We don't always get to understand his motivations. Here, Merlin is a man who happens to be a wizard. We see him fall in love and see that love torn away.
Unfortunately, other characters are far less interesting. Queen Mab who wants Merlin to be a wizard to add to her power is not interesting. She goes from weedling to shrieking harpy in the bat of an eye. During one discussion she has with Frick, every time she speaks, she zaps around in fast motion to another location. That was interesting once, but not repeatedly.
Frick is an interesting character. Here is one who serves Queen Mab, who trains Arthur and who seems to have some depth. He isn't really evil, he just serves the evil queen. Like Merlin, he is capable of loving. Mab eventually takes his powers from him and he has to operate in the mortal world.
Of all the characters here, the least interesting is Arthur. This is fine, however, as the story is not his this time.
This is a very pleasant production over-all, but it is long. (Hallmark showed it in two parts). If it was shorter, it would be better, but it doesn't sustain the interest it develops to the end. By the time it's over, we're ready for Merlin to head off into the sunset. Still, this is a good film and beats another repeat of Friends or Chicago Hope anyday.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12