Ridley Scott’s “Legend” is one of the most interesting failures that I’ve ever seen. It could have been the definitive grown-up fairy tale. Scott has brilliance, but even his best films repeatedly show a triumph of visuals and story ideas over character development. In “Legend,” the story stands as a middling mix of fairy tale themes populated with bare archetypes and eye candy.
A forest bursts with vibrant reds, yellows, greens, and blues in the sunlight. Our fresh-faced lovers — forest-dweller Jack (Tom Cruise) and Princess Lili (Mia Sara) — share innocent kisses by a sparkling river as pedals blow through the air. Of course, this is all too pretty to last. This fantasy world hinges on a pair of unicorns. The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) conspires to kill the unicorns and plunge the world into eternal, cold… well, darkness. Darkness’s minions kidnap Lili (of course!), so Jack, with a crew of magical creatures, must defeat Darkness.
This movie must have gobbled up a serious budget. From the light filtering through the forest leaves, to the dark (artificially-created) winter that blights the land, to the stony yet organic, decaying lair of Darkness, the cinematography and art design reach for a storybook look. But it’s all so excessive, as if it were trying to cover up some larger deficit.
That brings me to the film’s characters. Ignoring my affinity for villains, Curry makes sure that we can feel Darkness’s overwhelming personality behind the impressive, devilish latex and stilts. Sara is more problematic, because she’s not just charming or manipulative. Sometimes her acting inexperience peeks out, but most of the time that adds insincerity to her naïve yet sensual character. Cruise has little to offer besides a set of crooked teeth, smooth acrobatics and nice legs. Good thing that his relationship with Lili isn’t too syrupy, but it’s still bland. The rest of the cast fills up space.
The story is standard-issue “save the girl, save the world,” raising intriguing questions — are good and evil forever linked? — that aren’t explored well. It’s a shame; William Hjortberg’s original script was a mature tale with multifaceted characters. Drafting neutered the work, and then the film was cut from 150 minutes to 94 minutes for Europe and 89 minutes for America. Only recently has Universal released a 113-minute director’s cut. Even better, this edition includes Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Forget about the Tangerine Dream score in the American version, unless you like synthesizers, electric guitars, and cheesy ‘80s singing. The violins, haunting vocals, and percussion of Goldsmith go the extra mile to help the film become the timeless classic it aspires to be, conjuring feelings of excitement, danger, romance, and magic.
“Legend” tries to create the ultimate synthesis of fairy tales and original ideas so as to achieve the level of universality bestowed on those stories told to us over and over again. The problem with this synthesis is not an overabundance but rather a scarcity.