Legend is the overlooked 1980s fantasy film by renowned director Ridley Scott, which followed up his previous lightning-in-a-bottle sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner. The first thing to know is that Legend is very much an 80s fantasy. If you’ve ever had fond memories of movies like Return to Oz, The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal then you owe it to yourself to check Legend out – it’s the same style of retro fantasy flair.
Moreso than its pedigree however, Legend is definitely a storybook fairytale come to life. A young Tom Cruise stars as Jack, a forest boy who must save his sweetheart Princess Lily and the last living Unicorn from the demonic Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry), else face a world that’ll be plunged into an ice age. It’s a somewhat top-heavy story, in that it deals with many familiar fantasy tropes of good versus evil, featuring gloomy portents of shadow, light, nature and destiny.
In this regard it’s not a particularly original story, and might have benefited from the lightness of touch that earlier fantasy adventures had; it takes itself a little too seriously. Written by novelist William Hjortsberg, Legend has no shortage of mythical forests, fairies, goblins and other fantasy folk. There’s even a marsh and cliché lava-filled lair for the film’s climax.
And yet it’s clearly a Ridley Scott endeavour, with a level of technical mastery and attention to detail that very few films have. The sets are just so full of pizzazz and colour and crammed with imagery that it really feels like you’ve jumped into a fable. It’s visual stunning, and made my jaw drop more than once (especially on Blu-ray). Best of all perhaps, is that this was all achieved with compelling practical effects rather than CGI. Tim Curry is unrecognisable as the crimson menace that’s the tenebrous Lord of Darkness, and it comes as no surprise that Legend was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup.
The director’s cut is a good 20 minutes longer than the original theatrical release and boasts a surreal score by composer Jerry Goldsmith (the theatrical release had a rushed but still memorable soundtrack by German electronic artists Tangerine Dream, created especially for the North American release). The extra time is put to good use on character development and subtleties but results in a slower, more dreamy pace that might rile fans of the speedy, synth-sounding theatrical cut.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note the similarities between Legend and Nintendo’s popular video game series The Legend of Zelda. The original The Legend of Zelda, a fantasy action-adventure, was released in 1986 to universal critical acclaim and spawned one of the most important and influential series in gaming (Legend premiered the previous year). It too features a forest boy, this time called Link, who embarks on a quest to save Princess Zelda from the evil Ganon – sound familiar?
Although it’s not confirmed, the similarities have led to wide rumours that the film was a source of inspiration for the series, which was otherwise based on creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s explorations as a young boy of hillsides around his childhood home in Japan. Later games would feature more similarities – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has main character Link accompanied by an annoying fairy (similar to Oona from Legend), receive a tunic and magical sword (just like Jack) and journey to a dungeon within a giant tree (the lava lair of the Lord of Darkness is a dungeon within a giant tree). Intentional or not, the similarities make Legend just about the closest thing to a The Legend of Zelda movie, so if you’re a fan of the series then I strongly recommend giving it a go.
That said, Legend suffers because the material isn’t exactly fresh, with the odd occasional jarring bit of dialogue like ‘Adios amigos!’ to throw things off-balance. Nevertheless, it’s endearing to a certain extent (it could have done with a little more joy in its execution) and is brought to life by unparalleled visuals. It’s therefore no surprise that it’s become a cult classic – deeply flawed but made of the stuff of imagination with moments of wonder.
Legend is a familiar storybook fairytale come to life – beautiful to behold, dreamlike and surreal but slow and undermined by a murky screenplay.