October is knocking ever harder on our doors with cold weather and an abundance of pumpkin flavored goodies, and I think we’re all well aware of what that means.
Okay, maybe not specifically that. However, though his filmography seems to argue otherwise, Tim Curry is one of the actors I most associate with this spooky time of year. Honestly, he’s the only one. Something about his presence seems to scream to me “Halloween”. As such, what better way to prepare myself for the oncoming slew of costumes and trick-or-treaters than to indulge in some movies starring my favorite stage ham? None. There is no better way.
I spoke briefly about Labyrinth during my last Fanfiction Friday, and how it’s one of the most important movies in my life. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that I also have a sort of sweet nostalgia for Ridley Scott’s Legend. Having come into possession of the director’s cut, I was pleased to discover that Scott was finally able to “restore [his] original vision for the film” and that he now considers Legend complete. I haven’t watched this film for several years, and even then I watched the toned down for TV version, so I was pleased to finally have the opportunity to sit down and watch it in full. Was this fantastical love story, entwined between a battle for light and the ultimate darkness, as good as I remembered?
No. Oh god, no. No, it was not.
Coming out only one year before Labyrinth, Legend is the love story between Princess Lili and Jack, a boy who lives in the forest who maybe has some elfish or earth magic, but pretty much is a normal human. The two are hopelessly in love, and in order to repay some of the kindness Lili has shown him (bringing him food, being his only human friend, singing to him, etc.) Jack takes Lili to see a magical sight: unicorns! However, while the two head on their merry way, the prince of darkness (as played by Tim Curry)—literally named “Darkness”—has sent his minions to kill the two last unicorns in order to extinguish the light of the world.
Using Lili as bait, since she’s filled with the innocence and purity that unicorns love so much, the goblin minions manage to poison, and eventually kill, one of the unicorns and take its horn—which then can be used as a magic wand for some reason. Because of this, the lands become cursed and everything in thrown into an eternal winter.
Jack, having been split up from Lili, is accosted by an elf named Gump, his merry band of dwarves, and a fairy named Oona. Gump demands to know what happened, and upon hearing that Jack took a mortal to see the unicorn—their sacred creature—threatens the poor forest boy. If Jack cannot solve Gump’s riddle, then Jack will die as repentance. Luckily, it’s the easiest riddle in the world, and they all share a drink afterwards before deciding to name Jack the champion of light and heading off to destroy the forces of evil. Lili, in the meantime, has been captured along with the last remaining unicorn and taken to Darkness’s lair.
After falling into a convenient trap, the ragtag gang end up in the lair’s dungeon and through some form of wit, manage to escape. The forest crew recalls that Darkness is destroyed by light and work on a very convoluted plan to get sunlight within the dank castle. Darkness, on the other hand, is too busy falling in love with Lili and trying to turn her into a lady of evil and sin to notice all the clamor that is going on around him. Unsurprisingly, Jack saves the day, Darkness is sent back to the shadow realm, and the he and Lili smooch and live happily ever after. I think.
I hope this plot sounds convoluted and confusing to you because even as I wrote it and tried to narrow it down from the number of groan-worthy deus ex machinas, it still barely flows together as a narrative. In fact, the whole movie feels like a bunch of ideas that Scott felt would be cool to have, only held together by the thinnest of plot threads. And when I say groan-worthy, please believe that I mean it. The plot calls for Oona’s human form being hidden from the rest of the cast? But then Gump and his dwarfs inexplicably can’t enter the magical cave of swords and armor (that just happens to be in the middle of the forest) in which Oona reveals this secret to Jack. They need to escape from Darkness’s dungeon? Better reveal Oona’s human form, giving her the power to slip through the bars as a ball of light, then somehow she’s able to carry the key and unlock the door. Want to establish a sense of safety in the most evil of places? Eyy, look, one of the dwarves is pretending to be one of Darkness’s minions and has totally evaded getting caught this entire time despite being a total idiot. It’s just ridiculous how many easy outs the protagonists get: you never once feel worried for them during the film. Not once.
Going along with this, there are no consequences to anyone’s actions. This is even established in the very first scene with Lili in it. She sneaks into a house and starts eating their food. You think she’s going to get yelled at for it when she gets caught, but nah. It’s okay because she’s a princess and they like her. She touches the unicorn; the unicorn is totally cool with it. She gets captured by the forces of evil? Literally nothing happens to her. She was never in danger. Jack is attacked by something? Despite not having any weapons training ever, he’s great with a sword. He even manages to do flips and shit despite wearing armor that’s heavier than his regular attire. Jack breaks Oona’s heart? A fairy that could probably murder him, need I remind you? It’s cool, she doesn’t betray them at all, even though Jack totally told everyone about her human form when he’d promised to keep it a secret.
If all of this is a lot to take in, I apologize. But I kid you not when I say that this is the exact pace at which the film throws lore, character development, and scene changes at you. If it’s not making sense here, it makes just as little sense in the actual film: the audience is not given background or worldbuilding, just random facts that we have to accept.
The worst offense of this film, however, is its treatment of its ladies, of which there are only three outside the remaining unicorn: Lili, Oona, and a swamp witch. Each of their plots revolve around love, and very heterosexual love at that. The swamp witch is just hilariously offensive, as she’s defeated when Jack distracts her by telling her how pretty she is and how much any man would be lucky to kiss her (with little or no danger posed to Jack during their entire encounter). Oona is, right away, a part of a love triangle: she immediately tells Jack she loves him. Why does she love him? Wouldn’t that be great to know—but apparently it’s not important. Because of this, she does magical fairy stuff for Jack to help him, but has no other real purpose.
And Lili… oh god, Lili. The writers almost tried. After the world turns to winter, she even states determinedly, “I will make this right.” And I’m not angry that she doesn’t, but the fact that she’s barely shown trying to make things right is a huge flaw of the story. Honestly, the narrative seems to be trying its best to keep her down at every point. When she tells Jack that she thinks she’s brilliant—or her father does—he responds by telling her that it’s not her wisdom that he’s enchanted by. Literally no one respects her: even the family at the beginning only speaks about her getting married soon. …No, I lied. There is one character who respects her, if only marginally: Darkness. Darkness is the only one who outright says he respects her opinion and wants to hear what she has to say. And I’m not supposed to ship this?
When comparing this film to one such as Labyrinth, it’s easy to pick it apart based on female representation and the sheer stupidity of the story and how poorly the universe was thought out (or at least shown to the audience). But even in the lesson, we are lacking. Labyrinth is about a girl growing up, learning to balance all her dualities and becoming a stronger person through it. A boy can have just as compelling a tale, but Legend has Jack learning nothing in the end. He is still a child; he has gained nothing because he hasn’t had to fight for anything himself. This is a poor message to give, especially for such a trite love story.
I’m bagging on this movie hard, but it’s only because I expect so much more. Especially from this director. Would I still recommend it? If you can get through the terrible pacing and boring leads, yes. Why? Two words: Tim Curry. I wouldn’t say he saves the whole movie, but he certainly makes it tolerable. And if you’re a fan of fantasy, I’d say give it a go, too: it’s by no means the best at anything it sets out to do, but it’s still a fun watch.