One of the most enjoyable of the Sci-Fi (I refuse to say "SyFy") Channel movies that I've seen, MERLIN AND THE BOOK OF BEASTS (2009) is a modest but well-crafted continuation of the Arthurian legend that knows its limitations and uses a modest budget to its fullest potential.
After the deaths of King Arthur and his knights, and the rise to power of an evil sorcerer named The Arkadian (Jim Thorburn), darkness has once again descended upon Camelot and the rest of England. All that's left to fight the good fight are an aging Sir Galahad (Donald Adams), his young apprentice Lysanor (Jesse Moss), and the brawny Tristan (Patrick Sabongui), son of Tristan and Isolde. Most importantly, there's the beautiful blonde warrior princess Avlynn Pendragon (Laura Harris), who just happens to be the daughter of Arthur and Guineviere.
After securing the help of an initially reluctant Merlin (James Callis), the brave band makes its way into a ruined Camelot to confront The Arkadian. But he has a terrible weapon at his disposal--a magic book which contains the captured spirits of evil creatures whom he can release from its pages at will to do his bidding. He also has a terrible secret, which King Arthur fans will probably guess pretty darn quick.
The script is fairly good for this type of film. Scriptwriter Brook Durham keeps a pretty even tone most of the time and goes easy on the lowbrow humor. With some awesome Canadian locations to work with, director Warren P. Sonoda is able to manage a hint of big-budget gravitas in some of the sweeping outdoor shots, especially during the pivotal scene in which Avlynn wades into a lake to retrieve Excalibur from a protruding rock and hoist it aloft.
Production values remain modest but decent enough otherwise, although the most the filmmakers manage in the way of interiors are a few rooms in the Arkadian's palace and some tunnels. A small courtyard set with a couple dozen extras is all we see of Camelot's inhabitants. Overall, the production design and cinematography are good and the film, while sparsely populated, has an attractive look.
Callis, better known as Baltar in "Battlestar Galactica", does an okay job as a gruff, growly-voiced, and supremely world-weary Merlin, although his strangely Jamaican-tinged accent had me wondering at times. His quirky interpretation of the character has its ups and downs, one advantage being a very dry sense of humor. Here's an exchange that takes place between a captive Merlin and The Arkadian:
"Where is the sword--the sword in the lake?"
"You'll never find it. I hid it, see?"
"You hid the sword?"
"No, I hid the lake."
The rest of the cast is capable if not quite outstanding. I liked the Avlynn character most of all--it's intriguing to see a female Pendragon fighting to regain her father's throne. Thankfully, Harris doesn't play her as an unrealistic superwoman, but simply as someone who finds herself in a desperate situation in which she must act heroically.
The "beasts" of the title include, strangely enough, a CGI-generated flock of deadly butterflies (well, it's original, anyway), some "Dragon Soldiers" with really ugly makeup jobs, giant "Death Hawks" that capture the good guys and whisk them away to the bad guy's lair (which reminded me of a similar scene with the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz"), and, best of all, the ever-popular Gorgon sisters. Some of the liveliest moments involve these snake-haired beauties, led by the malevolent Medusa (Maja Stace-Smith), against whom our steadfast heroes must do battle with their eyes closed lest they be turned to stone. The fist and sword fights with more human foes are serviceable although the choreography is a bit on the flabby side.
The DVD from Anchor Bay is anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. There's an eleven-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.
MERLIN AND THE BOOK OF BEASTS is no epic, to be sure, but simply an entertaining B-movie that manages to rise a bit above the mediocrity of the usual Sci-Fi Channel fare. As a big fan of John Boorman's classic "Excalibur" I found it interesting to watch this fun and fairly involving small-scale continuation of the story, and consider it a worthy effort of its kind.
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