Legend (1985) Review: The best fantasy film you’ll ever see
Once upon a time…
A young princess (Mia Sara) fell in love with a simple child of the forest named Jack (Tom Cruise).
In a dream-like fantasy world of faeries and goblins, they live carefree and innocent. That is, until the daemon called Darkness took the life from their idyllic world, turning it into an endless winter night, and stole the princess as his bride.
Now, Jack must rise from peaceful pauper to warrior prince and with the help of the forest’s faerie folk, rescue the princess, and vanquish Darkness.
If he fails, there may never be another dawn.
Legend isn’t so much a typical feature film as it is a two-hour piece of visual poetry.
It’s kind of like if H.P. Lovecraft rewrote Aesop’s Fables with a Beowulf-like approach to the epic saga of mankind, then gave the script to Ridley Scott.
It’s a story anchored in the universal themes of pure good against pure evil, dressed in the stunning visuals you could only find in a time before computer-generated special effects and cinematography rose to prominence.
Legend was the reason they made Blu-ray. Its glowing sets and costumes are so ornate, so beguiling, so breathtakingly beautiful, you’ll want to reach out and touch the screen. You don’t really sit there and watch it, you drink it in.
A mostly unrecognizable Tim Curry (but you could mistake that voice?) is the frightening embodiment of evil known simply as Darkness. Underneath what must be a hundred pounds of red and black rubber, Curry is a nightmarishly real devil in the flesh.
Legend was Mia Sara’s (you’ll remember her as the girlfriend in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) Hollywood debut, and features a very young Tom Cruise, before he got his teeth fixed and went crazy on Scientology.
Cruise plays Jack, the central, and perhaps least interesting character in the movie. Innocent and pure to a fault, he’s our stock hero – the pure-hearted boy who loves a princess.
Both future stars play their archetypal roles well, but it’s the secondary characters – the goblin Blix, the fae elf Gump, the fairy Oona, and especially Darkness – who are the most compelling. Unlike the untouchably pure Jack, they have eccentric personalities, flaws, and motivations that are all too human.
Gump is a gatekeeper of destiny, driving Jack on, telling him where to go and what to do, stopping short of actually jumping in the spotlight and doing it himself. In a completely un-contextualized fantasy world (this isn’t Lord of the Rings after all, where every rock and tree has an entire tome written about its history), Gump is our guide.
And who could forget the “loathsome” Blix, whose heart is “black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch.” As Darkness’ right-hand goblin, he’s just smart enough to know not to challenge his all-powerful master. Blix opens the film, and plays a major role through the first half – after which he completely disappears, presumably alive and well despite Darkness’ demise (Sequel!).
Darkness himself is the most interesting of them all. Who is this mysterious ‘father’ he speaks to when he’s alone? And why does the dark lord of all things evil seem so frustrated, so outdone by a teenage princess? Even evil incarnate needs relationship validation, apparently.
But it’s when he hints at the world beyond the film that Darkness is the most intriguing, and most frightening. When you’re a kid watching Legend, it’s the giant black horns and deep voice that scare you. Later, it’s his insight into the nature of mankind – his comments on dreams, on our animal nature, that creep up your spine and make him so much more than a stand-in for the boogeyman.
And if Tim Curry walking around in a giant devil suits sounds like the kind of thing that just wouldn’t age well, I promise you, it still looks good. It’s a wonder the man behind Legend’s make-up effects, Rob Bottin, didn’t win the Oscar he was nominated for.
In fact, not much in Legend has felt the unflattering touch of age. More than 25 years later, and the master make-up and design work still seems to have the edge over the latest special effects.
Legend somehow got away with a PG rating (there is a noticeable absence of any blood), and it’s obvious the idea was to market it for all ages. So while much of the movie is dark and foreboding – it can wax whimsical as well. There are slapstick moments when an imp will bonk his head, or a dwarf clumsily falls down a hole. There’s even a fart joke.
The movie takes a while (a good long while, if you’re watching the European cut) to really get going, and some of the dialogue between Jack and Lili feels awkwardly wooden compared with the fae creature’s rhyme and poetic verse.
It also has to be said, the final fight scene between Jack and Darkness is more than a little cheesy. When the 5’6’’ Tom Cruise punches a seven-foot tall daemon lord in the face, I’m really not buying the whole Darkness crashing backwards in pain thing.
But this is a movie that thrives on ambiance and mood. Action, arrows, and adventure are just fine, but it’s when nothing at all is happening that Legend’s thrall over you is strongest.
The ending is an unashamedly happy one, and frankly, it’s all wrapped up just a little too neatly. With Darkness seemingly destroyed, everything goes back to exactly the way it was before, and everyone rides off into their respective sunsets. For all the movie’s intriguing philosophical undertones, for all it’s “Darkness,” it leaves you with the most predictable finale it could. But then, this is a fairy-tale after all, and true to form, it ends just the same as it began.
Of all the dream-like fantasy films of the 1980s (and there were a lot – Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, The Never Ending Story, to name a few), Legend is perhaps the most worthy of re-watching today.
Ridley Scott created something timeless in 1985, a luminous treasure of fantasy and colour, and if you haven’t had the chance to experience the visual dream that is Legend, I suggest you get on that.
Goldsmith vs. Tangerine Dream: a tale of two cuts
There are two basic versions of Legend (if you want to get really technical, IMBD says four) – both quite distinct from each other.
There’s the European/Director’s cut – longer, slower, and with its orchestral soundtrack. And there’s the U.S. Theatrical and home video release – with a different intro and ending, quicker pacing, and a fantastical soundscape from ‘80s synth pioneers Tangerine Dream.
Both versions have their lovers and haters. Personally, I like the Director’s cut for its length (the more beautiful images, the better), but I actually prefer the U.S. cut soundtrack. Taking nothing away from the late, brilliant Jerry Goldsmith, the swelling synths and mysterious pads of Tangerine Dream just jive with the dream-like fantasy that is Legend.