By Ken Tucker
Updated April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT


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Last season, NBC’s big sweeps stunt was to give us a version of The Odyssey so hokey, so hollowly pretentious, it almost made me yearn for any other sort of TV movie, even a well-done piece of woman-in-jeopardy claptrap. But now the same network and production company, Hallmark Entertainment, have come up with a Merlin that is pure, luxurious pleasure, witty, exciting, and star-studded in the best possible way.

From Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway musical Camelot to Walt Disney’s wimpy 1963 cartoon The Sword in the Stone to John Boorman’s wonderfully broody 1981 film Excalibur (with a fair amount of grimy funniness from 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail tossed in), knighthood legends and various King Arthur myths are well-trodden ground. But director Steve Barron (heretofore best known for bringing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen) and screenwriters Peter Barnes and David Stevens have freshened and brightened the material. And they make it work without kowtowing to the campiness of the post-Xena: Warrior Princess television era.

In Arthurian adaptations, Merlin is often a walk-on. But this two-part mini places him at the center, tying the various legends together. Sam Neill plays him from peach-fuzz-chinned fledgling sorcerer to bearded, grizzled wizard, and the movie begins with the untested and ambivalent young man being trained in magic by the voluptuous Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson, sinisterly seductive with spilling curls and minx mascara). Merlin quickly divines Mab’s cruel quest to control England and rebels by running away. He falls in love with Nimue (Isabella Rossellini), who shares with Merlin her vision of Avalon, site of the Holy Grail, the sacred cup that will heal, feed, and nurture England.

Distracted in what now becomes his quest for the Grail, Merlin isn’t around when Nimue is taken hostage by Lord Vortigern (Rutger Hauer, who signals his badness by being decadently paunchy and sneering a lot). Just as Mab teams up with Vortigern, so does Merlin join forces with the knight-who-would-be- king, Arthur (handsome but colorless Paul Curran), whom he trains to use the magically unbreakable sword, Excalibur.

This brief synopsis cannot contain all the characters and their plot-skewing, heavy-breathing huggermugger, but director Barron lays out the action with quick, precise clarity, set against sylvan backgrounds shot in England’s green and pleasant land. These beautiful landscapes frequently become the sites of mace-swinging battles between magic-worshiping pagans and righteously faithful Christians. The production also benefits from nifty special effects (the dragons are far more deftly believable than were, say, the monsters in Odyssey; and Merlin’s talking horse, Sir Rupert, is so convincing, I didn’t think of Mister Ed for, oh, seconds).

Barron uses his four hours to sketch in full portraits of Mab’s obsequious but devious servant Frik (a delightfully fey Martin Short) and — a particularly hooty delight — Helena Bonham Carter’s Morgan le Fey, Arthur’s scheming half sister. Bonham Carter whips through this role like a blowsy witch; it’s no wonder Arthur, unaware that he’s related to Le Fey, ends up having incestuous thoughts about (and actions with) her. Together they sire the dreadful brat Mordred (Jason Done) — more trouble for Merlin.

In the end, though, it’s Neill’s somberly swashbuckling wizard, romantic yet self-doubting (”I was never a good judge of men,” he moans), who holds this boldly complex yarn together. Neill has had a tendency to be a bit stiff in everything from Jurassic Park to the TV remake of In Cold Blood, but here he’s open and vulnerable, a dashing tragic hero, rather than the traditional long-robed, conical dunce-capped caricature of Merlin.

I have a feeling that the screenwriters have probably made mincemeat of the various fairy tales and legends cobbled together here, but the result is nothing less than an instant classic — a four-hour TV movie that deserves to be shown annually, the way it used to be a tradition to broadcast The Wizard of Oz every year. It’s that good — that scary, that rich, that much fun. A


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