Without a movie challenge this year, I came to a startling realization a few weeks ago: I could rent whatever the hell I wanted from Netflix. There were no self-imposed deadlines I had to meet, no movies I absolutely HAD to watch. This, of course, left me wondering exactly what I wanted to watch, and I decided I was in the mood for something light, ridiculous, perhaps something that was funny even though it wasn’t actually supposed to be.
This is how I ended up watching Legend, a movie where Child of the Forest Tom Cruise wears armor without pants and has a telepathic conversation with a unicorn.
This review is for the director’s cut of Legend because that’s what Netflix gave me. I’ve never seen the theatrical version or European version to compare, although I did look up some of those differences. Also, SPOILERS, cause I’m lazy, and because this movie apparently came out the year I was born, so. You’ve had time.
The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry) orders his goblin minions to kill some unicorns and bring back their horns so that he can banish sunlight forever. After Jack (Tom Cruise) and Princess Lily (Mia Sara) inadvertently provide the opportunity for the goblins to do just that, they (separately) try to save the last remaining unicorn and reverse the eternal winter that’s come over the land.
1. Let’s start with something positive: this movie is gorgeous.
The visuals, the set design, they’re all fantastic. I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite scene: the (extremely sudden) storm near the beginning with all the pink flowers, the frozen cabin, the dance scene between Lily and her Evil Black Dress of Fuck Yes, etc. etc. I don’t like all of Ridley Scott’s movies (I’m talking to you, Prometheus, you epic garbage fire in space), but every one I’ve seen has been visually compelling in some major way, and Legend is absolutely no exception.
2. Alas, Ridley Scott also hired Tom Cruise to be his lead.
Look, Tom Cruise has surprised me a time or two by being pretty great in a part that I never, ever would have cast him in. We all remember Lestat, right? Tom Cruise was a shockingly fun Lestat. Sadly, that same holy shit magic doesn’t work here at all because Baby Tom Cruise is spectacularly miscast as Jack.
Part of the problem is that Tom Cruise is 22 here and, well, looks 22. Of course, as we all know, having people in their 20’s and sometimes even 30’s play high schoolers is a time honored Hollywood tradition, but Jack–who’s actually referred to as a forest child–has a very traditional Peter Pan feel to him, right down to the costuming of a green tunic and no pants. At the very most, Jack should be 18, and probably a young 18 at that. Honestly, though, I can’t help but feel this story might play a little better with actual kids, like a childhood romance between 10 or 12-year-olds. Tom Cruise looks wildly out of place here–and that’s before he opens his mouth, which of course makes everything ten times worse.
Also, he just . . . smiles. Like, way too hard and way too much. If a man smiled at me the way Tom Cruise smiles at Mia Sara, I would turn and run screaming into the night.
3. Of course, Jack really doesn’t like pants, so it’s totally possible that Ridley Scott just watched that one scene from Risky Business and figured they were pretty much set.
To an extent, I understand the green tunic without pants, but this just boggles the damn mind. Tom Cruise is wearing armor (hideously terrible 80’s armor) without PANTS. Like, WHAT? Who does that? It’s like an armor mini dress, and I have zero idea what it’s supposed to accomplish . . . although I will admit it’s sort of refreshing to see the male character having to wear this crime against fashion, for once. Still. “Thank God my chest is protected, no one can kill me now! . . . Oh, dear, I appear to have taken a sword straight to the femoral artery. Perhaps I should get a Band-Aid.”
Obviously, I want to cosplay this armor abomination because it’s hilarious, but I have no actual costuming skills, and also I’m not sure I’d be comfortable showing that much thigh. I would also like to cosplay Princess Lily’s Evil Black Dress of Fuck Yes, of course, but that has similar problems.
My God, it’s just the best. I’m not sure exactly how it would hang on a short, busty girl with hips, but still. Gorgeous. One of these days, I’d like to see a heroine dressed like this at the end of the movie, like, where is my awesome gothic princess who gets to have a happy ending and still be goth? I’m waiting, damn it.
4. I also wouldn’t mind cosplaying the Lord of Darkness, but clearly there are even bigger problems here.
Let’s cut to the obvious truth: Tim Curry’s appearance in this movie was a huge factor in making the decision to actually see it, for I love every single thing this man does. The Lord of Darkness, by the way, is no exception, even if it takes a frustratingly long time to actually get him on camera. (In the director’s cut, we only get to see Darkness in a very Dr. Claw fashion, at least for the first hour.) Curry is, unsurprisingly, awesome in Legend, although his character occasionally baffles me . . . but we’ll get to that in a bit.
5. Let’s discuss the actual story instead of just costuming and creepy smiles, shall we?
The movie begins with Darkness telling goblin Blix (Alice Playten) to go get him some unicorn horns. I’m mostly mentioning it because Darkness also says “sunshine is my destroyer,” which is just an awful, awkward sentence, like as a writer, it’s making me shudder hardcore. Although it could make for a pretty decent emo band name. Anyway, Blix then asks how to find a unicorn, leading to this exchange:
“There is only one lure for such disgusting goodness, one bait that never fails.”
“What be this bait? Please, you teach me.”
Subtly, we then transition to a beautiful, skinny girl in an ethereal white dress traipsing about the flowers to the sounds of peaceful, vaguely angelic music. Princess Lily then immediately pulls down a line of sheets some lady had out to dry because, apparently, innocence is kind of an asshole. There’s sort of a weird, half-realized morality play going on in this movie, like it can’t seem to make up its mind whether Lily is innocence incarnate or a selfish, materialistic girl who must make up for her sins. The whole thing rarely works for me. Between this and Lily waxing poetic about how the poor actually have richer lives than rich people, me and Lil don’t exactly get off to the best start. (In her defense, Lily may have been trying to say that this place literally had more magic than her palace, but it sure came off like a rich girl romanticizing being poor to me.)
Now, this didn’t surprise me because I kind of figured going into this movie that I wouldn’t like Princess Lily. You see, I actually have seen the first, say, twenty minutes of Legend before–once, roughly 20-25 years or so. My memories are vague, to say the least, but here’s what I recall: I didn’t want to watch it (I think I wanted to play a board game instead?) and so probably wasn’t feeling terribly charitable when, after being expressly warned not to touch the unicorn, Princess Lily goes ahead and touches the unicorn. Baby Carlie was like “okay, so you’re too dumb to live” and, in a huff, went off to do something else, presumably play that board game I’d wanted to play in the first place. (I feel like it might have been chess, but it’s altogether possible that there was no game at all. Memory isn’t actually one of my stronger selling features, as we’ll see presently.)
What’s interesting about this is that Baby Carlie and Adult Carlie viewed this scene very differently. Here’s how Adult Carlie viewed it:
Creepy Jack With His Weirdly Intense Smile brings Princess Lily to see some unicorns, even though Honeythorn Gump (acted by David Bennent, voiced by Alice Playten) will make it seem pretty clear later that this is a big no-no. Lily, to no one’s great surprise, wants to get closer. Creepy Jack says no, and to be fair to Creepy Jack, his “no” is pretty unequivocal–he obviously doesn’t want her to touch them. To be fair to Lily, though, he never gives the slightest reason on why it’s a bad idea until she’s already done it, like, maybe mention that it’s forbidden and that you’re risking your immortal soul even talking about these creatures as anything short of sacred before your ladyfriend decides to commune with them, JACK. And to be fair to both of them, Lily touching the unicorn on literally any other day would have, so far as I can tell, absolutely zero consequences, since it’s only bad luck they happen to encounter it on the same day Blix needs to kill it. And that whole bullshit about how the goblins never would have been able to do so if Lily hadn’t broken the rules, like, nope. Am I really supposed to believe that unicorns don’t pause to drink water? Eat? Sleep? Honestly, Lily probably saved the world by touching the unicorn; otherwise, I assume the rest of the movie would have gone like this:
Gump: “So, seriously, nothing weird happened today? Nothing at all?”
Creepy Jack: “You know, it really didn’t. I guess we’ll all just have to sit around and hope everything goes back to normal. That plan has a high chance of success, right?”
I’m not saying Lily’s perfect, like, I don’t know why she looks so surprised that Jack jumps into the water to get her ring right after she says she’ll hitch herself to anyone who find it, but she’s also not nearly as bad as I remember her being, and that was a pleasant surprise.
6. So, Lily and Jack get separated. They both go their own way to try and save the last unicorn, which I thought was pretty cool, although Lily ends up getting abducted and needing rescue because of course she does. (Although we weirdly don’t actually see that scene? Is this only a Director’s Cut thing?) Still, there’s more agency here than I was expecting. We’ll get back to Lily’s side of the quest in a minute, but first, let’s talk about Gump.
Gump is an elf boy, and he’s kind of a delight, partially because he makes some pretty hysterical faces and partially because he has one of the most spectacular temper tantrums I think I’ve ever seen after Jack defeats his riddle challenge. (An aside: I am totally screwed if I ever encounter a riddle challenge. I can never keep those fuckers in my head.) I’m not sure why Jack doesn’t try to run during the middle of Gump’s epic tantrum (Mekaela and I were definitely in agreement that we would have taken this time to exit stage left), but he sticks around, and the two team up with a bunch of dwarves who are mostly around for comic relief.
Jack also has his telepathic conversation with the last remaining unicorn, who apparently tells him that Jack needs to recover and return the missing horn. I am not at all opposed to telepathic unicorns, but I suspect this scene would have worked better for me if either the film had done some kind of neat visual thing to demonstrate this conversation, or if Tom Cruise made facial expressions. As is, he mostly just seems to be blankly staring at a souped up horse for three minutes before telling us things he couldn’t possibly know. (Okay, I guess it’s not that bad, and I know Jack can talk to the animals in the forest and everything. I’m just saying it could have been better.)
7. Meanwhile, the bad guys capture Lily and the unicorn. Shortly after that, the Lord of Darkness says, “Father, I hold the world in my grasp, and yet this girl distracts me. It has been an eternity since I have felt such desire. What am I to do?”
I have questions.
A. Wait, when did the Lord of Darkness get a father? I thought he was, like, evil incarnate? There’s a Bigger Bad than motherfucking Darkness? Is his dad Satan? Is he, like, the weird expanse of stars that we glimpse through the window of Darkness’s pad? No, there aren’t any stars in that scene. There is a fireplace, though. Does he live in the fireplace? Is he fire? Why doesn’t he actually do any plot relevant things?
B. So, the Lord of Darkness has the hots for Princess Lily? Um. Has he even seen Princess Lily yet?
. . . yeah, there are only two people who can answer these questions for me.
Writer Joe: I’ve given it some thought, Writer Susan, and I’ve had an idea.
Writer Susan: Ooh, it’s been a while since we’ve had an idea! Lay it on me, Writer Joe!
Writer Joe: Well, I was thinking that whole scene where the Lord of Darkness first meets Lily and realizes that he lusts after her hot body? I think we should cut it.
Writer Susan: Gosh, Writer Joe. You don’t want the Big Bad to abduct and creepily obsess over our leading lady? That’s surprisingly feminist of you.
Writer Joe: Oh, no, no, no, I still want that. I just think we should cut the introductory scene. Cause, like, who needs it, right? Those are precious minutes we could be spending on the dwarves getting up to comedic shenanigans!
Writer Susan: Well, you know how I feel about comedic shenanigans, Writer Joe, but–
Writer Joe: Oh, here we go.
Writer Susan: I’m just saying–
Writer Joe: You never value my contributions.
Writer Susan: I’m JUST SAYING that I’m not sure I want the Lord of Darkness to inform the audience that he’s obsessed with Princess Lily by soliloquizing to the world at large about how she’s so innocent that he can’t stop thinking about her. Ooh, but if he was talking to his DAD–
Writer Joe: Wait, when the fuck did he get a dad?
Writer Susan: –then it would work perfectly! Yeah, it could be Dark Daddy’s idea to turn Lily evil. Which Darkness would try to do by . . . by . . .
Writer Joe: Seducing her with a magic Evil Black Dress of Fuck Yes, which will dance around and around until she suddenly decides to join in–
Writer Susan: A totally rational decision–
Writer Joe: –and they’ll spin around on the dance floor until she’s suddenly dancing alone, now WEARING the dress and properly EVIL!
Writer Susan: . . . oh, Writer Joe, how can you say I don’t value your contributions? That’s a beautiful idea!
Writer Joe: Oh, Writer Susan. I know.
8. Truthfully, I love the dance scene and its gorgeous what-the-fuckery. It helps that Princess Lily never actually does go Dark Side, despite wearing an amazing black dress, a fact that flies straight over the Lord of Darkness’s head because–much as I love him–this guy isn’t exactly the most competent bad guy in the world. For one, I have NO IDEA why he doesn’t immediately kill the unicorn and take its horn the second its in his possession. Then there’s the whole “I Will Trick You Into Becoming Evil” scene.
Tim Curry has hella presence here . . . but that doesn’t change the fact that the Lord of Darkness is kind of the worst. Here’s basically how this goes:
Darkness: “Sit down in this chair.”
Darkness: “Grrr, ARG–okay, no probs. Do what you want. I’m here for you. But seriously, sit down.”
Lily: “Well, maybe . . . nope, never mind, hard pass.”
Lily: “I’ll never do what you want, never, NEVER! . . . actually, now that I think about, not only do I wanna turn evil, I want to kill the unicorn myself, and this is absolutely, totally, not a ploy in any way.”
Darkness: “Ha, I knew it! You are mine forever!”
(One aside: I had a seriously hard time figuring out what I was supposed to be looking at when the camera zoomed in on the Evil Chair of Evil. I also must admit that I’m not exactly sure what was supposed to happen when Lily sat down on it. Does it automatically make her evil somehow? Do scorpions of darkness sting her butt or something? Does she become, like, one with the chair? Am I the only one confused by this?)
9. Of course, Lily ends up cutting the unicorn free rather than killing him. Disappointingly, she doesn’t also try to stab the Lord of Darkness, but I guess you can’t have everything you want in life. Meanwhile, Jack’s plan to defeat Darkness is to collect a bunch of shiny things.
Oh, all right, his actual plan is to do that whole light trick from The Mummy movies, but for a second there I seriously thought he just wanted to pick up every shiny silver platter he could find and hold it in front of the Lord of Darkness, hoping that their brightness would be enough to kill him. It’s possible that I don’t give Jack enough credit. He does hold his own against Darkness for far longer than I would have expected, considering that this is probably only the second time Jack’s even held a sword. Mostly, though, I attribute this to Darkness’s general incompetence.
Jack’s light trick (plus spearing him with a unicorn horn) works to injure Darkness, so that Jack can then send his ass spinning through the random expanse of stars. Seriously, I’m still a little lost on how this place apparently has a window to outer space. I missed a line, right? I must have missed a line?
10. One of the most interesting things about Legend is how it ends. Because in the Director’s Cut, Jack and Lily don’t end up together. Jack always promises to be there for her, presumably so they can hang out and look at magic stuff together, but at the end of the day they don’t get married; he stays in the forest and she goes home, and I feel like it’s implied that she’s eventually going to get married to an actual prince and live the kind of life she was born into.
It’s a surprisingly original ending, and I kind of like it, only I’m not entirely convinced the movie fully supports it. When Lily says that she’s learned something about herself and Jack, I . . . kind of feel like we need a moment where Lily has indeed learned something about herself and Jack, which I don’t think we get. I highly approve that they both embark on individual quests to fix their mistake (although I do feel that the movie ultimately puts more blame at Lily’s feet than Jack’s, which I don’t love), but I never really got the sense that Lily has any kind of Big Realization moment other than “maybe I shouldn’t touch unicorns anymore.” The bittersweet ending is cool, but I wish it felt more earned.
11. Finally, a few random notes:
11A. Jack has astonishingly good lung capacity. Being trapped under a frozen-over lake has always been one of those things that totally freaks me out, despite the fact that it almost certainly won’t ever happen to me, as I neither swim underwater nor live anywhere that gets cold enough for lakes to freeze like that.
11B. This is an 80’s adventure movie. As is fitting, there is a Giant Slide moment. I approve of this.
11C. The ring that Lily tosses, the one that Jack brings back to her? It is super ugly. I just thought that should be said.
11D. Also, I forgot to mention earlier that when Jack confesses he brought Lily to see the unicorns, he says he did it for love, like that’s all that matters.. People. No. The only time that excuse is acceptable is when you murder a yam.
11D. Holy shit, Robert Picardo is in this.
Of course, I would never have known if we hadn’t looked at the IMDb page, but still. It’s Robert Picardo! I just kind of love that guy. Picardo plays Meg Mucklebones, who Jack takes down mostly through flattery and deception, as he hasn’t quite taken a Level in Badass with his swordplay yet. Which is to say, he totally drops his sword trying to take it out of its scabbard. I do like that Jack isn’t exactly a master swordsman cause he shouldn’t be. He’s a little trickster dude. I also like his enthusiastic “I did it!” when he manages to kill Meg, although my immediate snarky reaction was I’m surprised too, Jack. I’m surprised too.
11E. Finally, in addition to the Lord of Darkness, Not-Quite-Evil Lily, and Jack in His Hilarious Armor, I also wouldn’t necessarily mind cosplaying Oona (Annabelle Lanyon).
She’s fun as well, although the main reason I’m mentioning her now is because at one point she makes herself look like Lily to try and trick Jack into kissing her. This is notable because not only has she already told Jack she can do this, she does it right in front of him, like, she doesn’t even bother to disappear and then come around the corner with Lily-face on. Nope, it’s just Oona one second, Lily the next, and Jack just stands there all, “Lily, is it really you?” GEE, JACK, I WONDER.
I mean, I know, I know, it’s faerie glamour magic and all, and Jack does figure it out after a minute or two, but still. This is Shang Tsung and Mortal Kombat all over again.
Princess Lily: “You’ve stolen my dreams away.”
The Lord of Darkness: “All things change, lady. The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.”
Screwball: “I vote we run like hell.”
Brown Tom: “I second the motion.”
Princess Lily: “I hear a throat begging to be cut.”
Brown Tom: “She was alive still when they killed me.”
Blunder: “She was so sweet, I could eat her brains like jam.”
Jack: “Human hearts don’t work that way.”
Oona: “What care I for human hearts? Soft and spiritless as porridge!”
Gump: “Did you not see something odd today? Any strange spirits? Did nothing untoward happen?”
Gump: “Your fine sensibilities have left us here to rot!”
Blunder: “Please, it was only a joke! No! No! Have you no sense of humor?”
Blix: “Forgive that intrusion, Great Lord, but goblins are outspoken and I like to encourage their initiative.”
It’s sort of a weird mix between a gorgeous fantasy and a campy disaster. The script doesn’t always work (some of the dialogue between Lily and Jack is especially bad) and the acting from Tom Cruise is rather poor. On the other hand, the visuals are stunning, I love the original fairy tale feel, and the ending is interesting, even if I don’t think it totally works. Also, the bad guy is both totally amazing and also kind of a loser.
My personal opinion? Yeah, it’s a hot 80’s mess.
Don’t touch unicorns. Or do, but seriously check your surroundings first.