Ridley Scott’s most misunderstood film flopped miserably at the box-office after audiences used to his hard-edged technoromps were faced with the sight of Tom Cruise playing an elf. They were understandably slightly nonplussed. Yet there is much to admire and enjoy in this film, even beyond the highly pleasing charms of Mia Sara in black lipstick.
A simple tale of light triumphing over dark, this is also a film in which lighting triumphs over plot, effects and acting (despite Rob Bottin and Tim Curry’s valiant efforts in the last two categories). Everything is eventually submerged beneath a tide of shimmer, glimmer and glow not to mention the flower petals, myriad miscellaneous motes or even soap bubbles which litter each frame, most notably in the opening sequences which look like a remake of ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. Visually, it is absolutely stunning stuff and is the prettiest film I’ve ever seen – each scene is arranged with such care and attention to detail you begin to think each of the previously mentioned petals was choreographed individually.
The problem is, it’s unsure of it’s audience – presumably a children’s movie (as the advertising material shown here makes clear), the cutesy-pie visuals and ‘soppy stuff’ between Jack and Lili which suggest the ‘My Little Pony’ group are sharply at odds with some grim(m) references to cannibalism, as when one of the goblins says of the heroine, “She was so sweet, I could eat her brains like jam”. The long build-up to the action would bore to tears most small boys not yet able to appreciate things like dazzling cinematography (or indeed, Mia Sara in black lipstick – why is innocence always cuter when it’s dressed to kill?). So the movie gently falls between two stools and fails to appeal to anyone that it’s supposed to.
This may explain the drastic celluloid surgery it suffered – the ‘special version’ shown on TV at Christmas was different from the video, although the extent of the alterations isn’t apparent until you compare them scene by scene. How much was at the request, or with the approval, of Ridley Scott is uncertain – some may be for technical reasons as the special version seems brighter, Tim Curry’s voice is deeper and in several shots the pan & scanning is different, giving the illusion of a new camera angle.
The most obvious change is that the video version (VV) has an orchestral score, replacing the Tangerine Dream electronically based soundtrack on the special version (SV).
Apart from the obvious differences, this totally alters the mood of some scenes, which the composers have chosen to interpret in varying ways. The scene where Lili enters the house in the woods for the first time is a salutory example of how music is capable of altering the tone of a scene. Dialogue is also altered in many areas, moved from scene to scene and removed or added. This can make a lot of difference: In the SV, Lili says to Jack,”Tell me your future”, to which he replies, “not today”, because they’re going to see the unicorns. In the VV, Lili instead says , “Teach me rabbit”, a rather less ominous phrase! Similarly, tho’ this may have been excised on the grounds of taste, one of the goblins says in the VV “Baby! How I love milk-fed meat!”, but by the time it reached TV, it had become “Plenty hospitality here!”
There is a love scene, albeit a chaste one, between Lili and Jack in the SV that is totally missing on video – the first kiss in the VV is not until right at the end after darkness has been defeated. Similarly, you don’t see Tim Curry until nearly an hour into the video, despite hearing his voice. In the SV, he appears, complete with fluorescent eyes, almost straight after the opening caption introducing you to the characters, which is also missing from the VV. In the SV, you see the unicorn’s horn being severed as Jack breaks through the ice that is covering the pool, while on video there’s only Jack. This matches up with a scene at the end where the SV has Jack wakening Lili at the same time as the unicorn’s horn is replaced, and the VV only has the wakening.
Conversely, at two points on video, Lili sings – once to charm the unicorn and, shortly afterwards, to calm Jack’s anger. Neither are included in the SV and the lyricist credit, which opens the VV titles, is also dropped. When Jack meets the Glump, in the VV he is forgiven his ‘crime’ of showing Lili the unicorn after answering a riddle. There is no riddle in the SV – he merely says he did it for love. Another bit removed in the same way is when Jack faces Meg Knucklebones, the swamp with – the VV has him using flattery to distract her, while in the SV it’s virtually straight out with the sword and !
Most of the later sections are relatively untouched – a sequence where Lili dances with a masked figure is noticeably longer in the VV, but compared to the first half there aren’t many changes. However, Lili’s (faked) conversion to the powers of darkness takes place over a longer period in the SV, and is thus more convincing. The two endings do differ significantly – before Jack finally defeats Darkness, the SV gives Tim Curry a speech in which he says “We are brothers eternal” before being sucked into a void. No final speech on the video, and only a couple of after-shots of the void! The final shot of the VV is Lili and Jack walking off into the sunrise/set. The SV gives a rather different impression, closing with a superimposed shot of Darkness laughing…
Personally, I think both versions have their strong points – some of the changes make sense, while others do weaken the film. Overall, however, I’d give the nod to the special version. Yet despite all this mutilation and alteration, what comes through is an adult (in the best sense) fairy tale, delightfully dark and wonderfully moody. And any time you feel Tom “I’m a serious actor” Cruise is getting a bit too pretentious, watch ‘Legend’ and you’ll never take the cute, pointy-eared pixie seriously again!