Remember how good Storm was? Forget it. Let’s get back to the bad medieval movies that this blog is known for reviewing. (Or should be known, at any rate.)
Enter– no, not just “enter,” full-on power slam– into Merlin and the War of the Dragons, a movie from a decade ago directed by Mark Atkins. Heck, just the title alone should give you an idea of how cheesy this movie is going to be (and is!). The title alone really does sound like the program of a Saturday morning cartoon (like, one of those hyped Made-for-TV films that a company might release for a hugely popular TV show).
As you might’ve guessed from the title, the film follows Merlin. This time around we sees a young Merlin as he learns the ways of magic from The Mage (seriously, that is all this elder character is named– The Mage. LOL). With Merlin is another young adult, both are 20, whose named Vendiger. Vendiger is a bit of a bad influence on Merlin, though, as he convinces him to steal The Mage’s powerful spell-book in order to learn the nature of his birth.
Things go wrong– naturally– and shit hits the fan; Merlin sees a vision of his demon father and must be saved by The Mage because… magic. Great for him but not so for Vendiger who has this oddly misplaced hatred for Merlin since he, apparently, gets all the attention. Vendiger storms off despite The Mage’s best efforts to placate the lad and Merlin goes and does destiny stuff while Vendiger discovers dragon mumbo-jumbo and ends up turning people into dragon slaves.
Honestly, it is a shallow, vapid motivation for a shallow, vapid story. I am not going to waste a lot of time describing the narrative because there isn’t much of anything to talk about: Merlin learns some more magic, gains the trust of allies who don’t trust him at the beginning, and some Arthurian mainstays pop up at opportune times. Meh. You’ve seen this before. Heavens know that I have.
What is nice about the movie, though, is that it does have an eye for history. Watching it, I was surprised about how many facts they got right. The writers clearly knew that it was the Anglo-Saxons who were the invaders and the native Britons were the desperate defenders. The alliance between Hengest and Vortigern against the Picts is mentioned before being blended into the Arthurian mythology surrounding Uther Pendragon. The big picture, then, is well-established and manages to interact with the smaller narrative of the characters effectively. Is it simplistic? Sure, but that is what we expect in B-Arthuriana.
Like any B-Movie, the crummy acting is where the fun is at. And War of the Dragons delivers. Tons of hammy, cheesy, acting is sprinkled with a fair amount of cringe-inducing special effects. There are so many moments that make you wonder if the actor is really that bad of an actor or if they were intentionally hamming it up because they knew that this was a low-budget production.
Talking about low-budget, though, with only a budget of a quarter of a million dollars, I honestly think that Mark Atkins could have done a lot worse for what he was working with; there is a fair amount of special effects in the movie and while they are not eye-pleasers by any means, they are neither so bad that they look like a six-grader put them together (admittedly, that is a rather low bar). Plus, the props could have looked a lot worse considering everything that the plot demands. In all, you work with what you have and what comes out the other end can vary dramatically depending on how you use your resources. Atkins used his resources well and the result shows (even if the movie itself is still just your average, below-average B-flick).
The only thing that really felt off about the movie was the action with the dragons. It feels hamfisted that Merlin would become a kind of action-hero; he feels a lot like a young Arthur and eventually, you have to wonder why this just wasn’t an Arthur-focused film. The uses of magic were fun, despite being corny, and could have used a lot more narrative focus; instead of dragon-this, dragon-that, I would have liked to see a narrative more intent on Merlin feeling his way around magic instead of acting as a retrieval system for Excalibur.
Ultimately, the movie feels a lot like a fan-fiction that combines Harry Potter with Arthuriana. Is it a bad thing? No, but after so much fiddling around with spell books, spells, and orphans and their ways, you can almost see the traces of someone’s youthful Hogwarts fantasy (and, yeah, I am fully aware of Rowling’s reliance on Arthuriana and the cyclical dialectic between the two).
In the end, Merlin and the War of the Dragons make for a mild-mannered movie to show to a kid with none too-high standards. As other reviewers have noted, it is campy with a decent, simple, introduction to elements of the Arthurian legend that gets history right. And in this cinematic field, that can be a taller order than you expect.