'Merlin' Charms With Love Story, 'Cinemagic'

King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table have come down to us in a variety of heroic stories, but Merlin the wizard has remained a shadowy figure on the edges of Camelot. Now Merlin has his own $30 million, special-effects-laden, made-for-TV movie (9-11 p.m., April 26 and 27 on NBC).

Though it lacks knightly feats, it is a gallant, well-told tale, designed for mature family viewing, with a fervent love story at its core.

In this version of the Arthurian legend, Merlin tries to help humans achieve political stability. He is frustrated in his efforts by the evil sorceress Queen Mab, who wants humans to embrace the Old Ways. And it's AD 500, and the humans are still too barbarous to be civil - or civilly minded.

At one level, the story is really about the displacement of one culture by another. The legendary magic of paganism is not seen primarily as a positive force in the film; in Mab's hands it is invariably diabolical. And even Merlin errs when he uses magic to serve the more devious designs of people.

Producer Robert Halmi ("The Odyssey" and "Moby Dick") says the element of magic allows for a special exploration of historical ideas. "This was a time when paganism was completely banished in Europe and when Christianity took over - and to make the transition was difficult. This film in a simplified way tells that story.... In those days, people really believed in fairies and gnomes and all those things."

It requires "cinemagic" to create a distant world, with its own rules and cultural ethos, and to still seriously approach history and geography (albeit from the metaphorical perspective of legend). Special effects are key, and they are terrific: fairies that dart about like dragonflies, a mysterious underground castle for Mab, a whiny gnome with a heart of gold, a magic mountain, assorted dazzling fireballs, imploding castles, and one fabulous dragon.

But what really matters is the story: A good man sets out to defeat evil, and the cost to himself is very great. In the meantime, there are parallel love stories: One is base (King Uther's lust for Lady Igraine), one is exalted (Merlin's love for Nimue withstands the test of time and fire), and one struggles from the base to the sublime (Frik's love for Morgan le Fay).

Halmi got his dream cast: Sam Neill makes an intelligent sensitive Merlin; Miranda Richardson as both the kindly Lady of the Lake and her evil twin, Mab, brings a marvelous otherworldly feeling to her dual roles; Isabella Rossellini is delicate and persuasively loving as Nimue; Helena Bonham Carter gives an astonishingly layered performance as Morgan le Fay; and Martin Short is brilliant as Frik the gnome - eschewing his regular shtick for a fresh invention.

Halmi also got his dream director: Steve Barron ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "The Adventures of Pinocchio"). Barron had 14 weeks to shoot (the usual TV picture takes 20 to 30 days to wrap), but there were 530 shots with effects in them to manage. Much of the time, one actor did his part alone on the set, so Barron had to keep the whole film in his head at all times.

"I had to keep the tone of the piece in the right orbit around the central planet of the film," says Barron. "So it was a matter of shepherding [the actors] into the right [emotional] area. We had a great cast. I just had to make sure they were all in the same movie."

Not only are the actors in the same movie, but their performances are splendid. The story works on several levels, addressing the nature of the heart's beauty - beauty that the illusions of the flesh cannot touch.

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