Though the genre by definition deals in the outlandish, it takes a lot of restraint to make a fantasy film work. Would Peter Jackson's Fellowship Of The Ring have succeeded half as well if it hadn't focused heavily on the geography of Middle Earth, and on the difficulty of navigating it? This may sound contradictory, but too much fantasy can spoil the illusion. Restraint has never been one of director Ridley Scott's trademarks, and while his willingness to shoot even the most mundane scene as if recreating a medieval Annunciation often serves him well, the same instinct lends a buggy quality to the 1985 film Legend. A fairy tale for the post-Jungian era, Legend pits absolute Evil (in the form of a behorned Tim Curry) against absolute Good (in the form of fairies and sprites led by Tom Cruise) in a battle for the soul of the land. It all hinges on a pair of unicorns, one of which is made vulnerable by the touch of a beautiful but foolish princess (Mia Sara), which enables Curry to claim its horn. (In a detail typical of the film's sexual politics, the stallion is the one done in by feminine wiles.) Working from a script, originally written in verse, by poet/novelist William Hjortsberg, Scott spells out his themes, then spells them out again for good measure. Bathing his unicorns in light is already over-the-top, but dropping a rain of flower petals on them crosses some sort of line. Fascinating in the way only a wrongheaded film by a great filmmaker can be, Legend lends beauty to such imagery, but the story keeps dragging it back to the mystical land of kitsch. Scott refuses to lend the slightest shading to the struggle between light and darkness, apart from Sara's virgin/temptress figure, which represents a different kind of stereotype. In the process, he loses any sense of humanity and reduces his players to a set of clashing symbols. This new DVD version offers a thesis' worth of supplementary materials for those intrigued by grand-scale missteps, including both the shorter, Tangerine Dream-scored U.S. version and the longer director's cut, which restores Jerry Goldsmith's original music. On the director's-cut audio commentary, a typically insightful Scott seems happy to revisit the film, but the most revealing moment comes in the accompanying documentary, when he traces Legend's commercial misfortunes back to a test screening ruined, in his reckoning, by a group of giggling stoners. They probably had the right idea. As a visual experience, Legend retains its appeal, but for more sober-minded filmgoers, it's intriguing primarily as a intriguing failure.
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