I’ll be honest, for a good third of this movie, I had no idea what was happening. Even going to Wikipedia didn’t help much (which surprised me since Wikipedia usually’s a safe bet with these older movies). And even though the arcane plot finally clicked with me about 30-something minutes into the film, this is not to say that the story is very original. Not even convoluted, per se, just poorly told.
So, the story is this: way back in the mythological middle ages, King Arthur and company had their spat with Mordred and Morgana (it is one of those renditions of the legend that focus the battle on the antagonists instead of the Lancelot-Guinevere matrix). Modred was too powerful to defeat, however, and in his last, desperate blow, Merlin banishes Mordred– but also Guinevere and Lancelot, for some reason– to another dimension while he keeps King Arthur in a hibernation spell for a good 1500 years.
If we fast forward 1500-odd years, we end up in the present. Or, the late-nineties-early-2000s present (shudders). Merlin’s spell is weakening and Mordred is conning a modern scientist to help him destabilize Merlin’s Earth-oriented electromagnetic geo-magic (I know, I know). Now, with King Arthur reawoken and Mordred’s return to the present day imminent, Merlin and Arthur must find a way to do what they failed to almost two-thousand years ago– defeat Mordred and Morgana and save the planet!
Okay, so as I said, it is a conventional neo-Arthurian narrative. In my engagement with cheap, poorly received B-movies set within the Arthurian mythos, this kind of plot is basic. Sometimes the time-travel hijinks are stilted around “reincarnation” concepts of finding the Round Table’s modern heirs while other times, like in this film, it is more focused on rectifying what went wrong in the past. In either case, you can expect an engagement in some way with the past to be important.
I do actually enjoy these kinds of narratives. I find it a hoot and a half to witness how medievalism collides with modernism. Sometimes, yeah, the jokes fall flat; other times, however, we become privy to amusing and even keen observations on the modern condition. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this film falls on the flat side of things.
Now, honestly, I did not find the humor that objectionable. Sure, some of the jokes are lame while others are just trying too hard, but the film came out at least mellow thanks to the cheesy, overacting of the cast. Intentional or not, the wonky way the lines are read combine with the goofily realized characters to leave a decent impression (however generic it may be in the grand scheme of things). Will it make you want to watch the movie again? Hell no! But it at least puts its best foot forward regardless of whether that foot should have ever been put forward.
The biggest issues facing Merlin: The Return is bad editing. Sure, the voices on some characters are odd– almost like they were dubbed over– and other things such as poor writing hamper the script, but editing remains the biggest weak point of the movie.
Or, actually, it is editing and space. You see, the movie has this a tendency to make poor edits where something happens followed by something that doesn’t make sense; like when characters comment on other characters motivations when you are pretty sure that they never met before or when characters seem to get an awful lot done in such a short space– you know, logical leaps like that. But, there is also an issue of pacing that relates to the choppy editing because after a while, you get a clear impression that there was more in the film that the director wanted to include but could not include.
In short, I got a very strong impression that this film was originally conceived as a television series. This is not the first time I have gotten this feeling. Previously, in King Arthur: Or, the Young Warlord, I had that impression before I knew it was a condensed TV show, and likewise with Merlin’s Mystical Shop of Wonders, I felt that it wanted to be a TV show (before finding out it was a re-cut horror movie). I am starting to think that is how a lot of these low-budget Arthuriana films get produced in the first place: someone had an idea for a TV show but the network was like, “eh, we’ll pass, but maybe pass the idea to this studio; sounds like it could be a decent low-budget production.” And, poof, of course, it gets made because if you are a director trying to get your foot in the door of Hollywood, you will do anything you can.
If I am to level with you, yeah, this was a sucky movie. But I was at least entertained. It felt three times as long as it actually was, sure, but I was at least enjoying myself. Were the kids super unneeded and cringe-worthy as only the 90s could have made them? Absolutely. But if you think of it was a TV show, I could see myself watching. Hell. If it were given some more resources and time to flesh out plots in each episode, it might even have made a good show.
At any rate, we will never know. Right now, it is just another neo-Arthurian job. Its attempt at comedy makes it palatable but not by much. If you like your Knights of the Round Table more ‘MTV’ and less ‘trite grandfatherly regurgitation,’ then I guess you can do worse.