This recap has been a long time coming. I didn’t even want to look up how long it’s been since Ellen won this recap in Con or Bust and typed “Merlin and the Book of Beasts” in an email to me in a way you could just tell was a sinister, gleeful whisper.
Interestingly, that was still not long enough for my major potential foil, the Jeff-Bridges-and-a-dragon movie Seventh Son, to be released as proof that budget and quality are not always related; that movie’s been delayed from embarrassment even longer than this recap has! It did, however, turn out to be delayed long enough for The Quest to premiere, which serves just as well. For those who missed it, it’s an extremely-vaguely-LARP reality series where everyone competes to be a hero instead of actually LARPing, which is a shame, but doesn’t stop anyone from asking “Can we trust him?” every time someone asks them to do anything, a skepticism I admire in reality-show contestants. (I reviewed the first episode at AV Club, and will probably end up tuning back in, but for now it’s enough to know that the costume budgets of Book of Beasts and The Quest were, to all appearances, dollar-for-dollar the same, except Book of Beasts also blew a chunk of money on an upholstery cape.)
The Quest also has, via its amazing actors and their even more amazing loaded-pauses-before-turning-around, reminded me why I ended up accidentally falling for Book of Beasts. (We’ll get there.) And though technically this is a film about Arthurian lore, it’s very much a “film” about “Arthurian Lore,” which means, for example, it contains three more Gorgons then generally appear in films about Arthurian lore. It just doesn’t care. No wonder I love it. Let’s dig in.
We open in Medieval Castle Village (which looks suspiciously like the Medieval Castle Village in which Erica Durance peppily fought gender roles in Beyond Sherwood Forest, a similar SyFy “film” about “Robin Hood”). But things are not well in Medieval Castle Village, as a sneaky magician opens up the Book of Beasts, releasing poisonous butterflies (yes) who kill some people, while several more fall prey to a sudden-onset case of Scared Face Into The Camera-itis.
“This will be the Age of the Arkadian,” he intones to no one since the butterflies got them all, suggesting he’s not on top of the kingdom concept yet. Then he makes a face I’m saving for later because it’s his only one and I don’t want the bloom to fade.
Luckily, we can assume these four brave knights are out to fix all that Arkadian business:
From right, we have Lysanor: useless dudebro, Tristan: son of Tristan and Isolde, Galahad: last member of the Round Table and father to Lysanor the Useless, and Avlynn: daughter of Arthur and Guinevere, out to reclaim the Round Table by defeating the wizard whose vicious butterfly antics have not stopped.
This seems like a good time to note that while the plot devolves into the usual nonsense, and ends up kind of dull except for the subtext two of its stars decided to generate for shits and giggles, it’s not particularly egregious nonsense. Both Titans movies were more disjointed and perfunctory than this. Really, the idea of a secret child of King Arthur pitted against a Loki-esque embittered Mordred, with help from Merlin and one last knight of the Round Table plus some handsome aides against monsters that require big fight scenes, sounds like a likely entry into the big-budget fairy-tale revisions we’re seeing of late. Largely, this movie feels ridiculous because the effects budget here was five bucks and Lysanor’s cape is a single upholstery trapezoid. As it is, the movie makes the best of the landscape, and occasionally there’s smart use of non-effects, as when these four head into the woods to look for Merlin and they trick-cut to what looks like sudden magical nightfall. Make Do and Mend: The Motion Picture.
Of course, they’re all useless against enchanted armor that literally comes with a Step No Further warning, so everybody gets their ass kicked (The Quest made me think of these battle scenes, given the general level of fight enthusiasm is I Practiced Twice), and in the end it’s up to Avlynn to triumph and face Merlin alone.
Aaand welcome James Callis, holding a snake. No stranger to making rent, he’s usually game for whatever. We all know he spent years staring, appalled, into thin air at an invisible Cylon girlfriend, but that’s only the beginning. Ernest of Saxe-Coburg in Victoria and Albert? Sure thing; enjoy his fastidious jacket-wearing. Accursed Haman the Agagaite in One Night With the King? Absolutely; enjoy his ceaseless Batman gravel-voice. And in Merlin, Book of Beasts — which I assume he was obligated to film as payment due for Battlestar Galactica — he goes Full Merlin, which includes the hair and makeup the movie gave him, and an accent he gave himself, which is so far Welsh he’s basically in the ocean.
Once he’s used his snake to hypnotize Avlynn (not a euphemism), he gets to reveal her for what is the first time in the actual movie, since not we’re supposed to know she’s a lady until right now!
(She’s just hypnotized. She’s really very nice.)
Boy, is Merlin ever surprised/quietly upset/maybe in love/saddened!
The other thing James Callis brings to this movie is the rainbow of facial expressions that have not yet even warmed up.
Laura Harris has also paid her TV dues, usually without pulling quite so many questionable faces, going all the way back to the time she had bio lab taught by the Devil on the X-Files. She’s a solid performer who’s also suitably game for this.
And what makes this movie amazing is that at some point, she and James Callis decided to just stare at each other in utter disregard for the script, in which Lysanor is her romance and some plot rests on their True Love’s Kiss business, but that was horrible, so I was an ideal audience for the old Actors Doing Whatever They Want gambit. We’ll be charting the plot largely by these looks, since they’re the only interesting thing happening.
We start right away, as Merlin slaps her archly with a branch to wake her (!). (Come to think of it, the sheer randomness of his magic is also actually kind of amazing, since he uses branches and fireballs and powders and positive thinking and water and the whole thing; this movie’s either secretly great or I watched it so many times I’ve lost all perspective.) Beginning our strange-subtext work, Merlin asks what a choir girl’s doing alone in the woods, complete with monotone “lalalalala” to bring home the concept. I highly recommend that for the full punch of his accent mingled with the line delivery of this, you just go ahead and watch the whole thing, or if that’s not possible, at least watch this whole, bizarre scene.
Why is she here? To rescue the kingdom from the terrifying Akadian, of course:
This is his face throughout. It is fantastic. You can pay him enough to show up, but not neeeeearly enough to care.
Merlin cares, though! He’s even making a powder so Avlynn’s forcible drugged removal from the forest is painless. What a gentleman. He cares even more when Avlynn reveals herself as the daughter of King Arthur. Luckily, she has a dragon tattoo ‘sacred mark’ that keeps him from backhanding her (actual thing) for making false claims.
“Do with me what you will,” she offers in exchange for his help (well then). But weariness has overtaken Merlin. “Help me to avoid the mistakes of my father!” she begs instead. He gives her the world’s single slowest farewell wave as he suggests she perhaps get the hell out. So, sad but undaunted, she farewells him right back with, “I will inform the knights I found you dead, to spare them the disappointment of knowing your cowardice.” That’s a decent burn. Merlin feels it, too.
Back in the plot, things are bog-standard, and bickeringly, they slouch toward Camelot. But the Arkadian sics a Dragon Soldier on them! (A Dragon Soldier looks like a soldier in Orc Prototype makeup and a skeleton helmet; I trust everybody’s imagination to supply this to spare us the fight screencaps.)
Things look terrible for them, until they’re rescued by a mysterious, magical benefactor!
(Listen, I’ll take anything I can get in one of these, okay? I enjoyed the meta of the B-movie they were filming in Piranhaconda, I enjoy any shot that looks like someone thought about it.)
It’s Merlin! He’s come to join them!
I’m impressed, Callis.
“There might be some things in this world still worth fighting for,” he growls quietly/intensely at Avlynn. (Well then.)
Introductions are made. Merlin doesn’t give Galahad the hard time I expected for someone who “never felt the kiss of love, nor maiden’s hand in mine” introducing a son, but he also must have descended quietly from heaven at some point after the coast was clear, so who knows. Tristan gets a little shade. And when Galahad introduces Avlynn, Merlin mutters, “I know, almost killed her” and wanders out of frame, and I’m reminded that James Callis is kind of delightful.
I wish Lysanor had gotten more shit in this movie, though; he tries some dudebro moves and gets punched and just honestly nobody cares. “I like a challenge,” he explains to Tristan about why he’s going after a lady who punched him rather than kiss him. Okay, great, go find the farthest chair in the kingdom and go have a seat, challenge accepted. Tristan seems a little too into the idea of Avlynn and Lysanor together, but otherwise is cool and may stay. (It’s worth noting that Patrick Sabongui is of Egyptian descent, which already makes this movie less white than dozens of other medieval movies, and he’s one of the heroes and doesn’t even die, which puts this movie ahead of about a dozen fantasy movies.)
They settle in at a friendly fire where Merlin spits on the name of Morgan le Fay (yikes, bad breakup) and everyone else asks intense whisperquestions while he judges them silently (see above). Later, Merlin awakes from a prophetic dream sequence (forecasting Fellowship of the Ring lighting, perhaps), and Merlins around about it, staring unblinkingly at Avlynn while someone else tries to get his attention, establishing a pattern that will repeat itself. Tristan’s sort of not into it. Lysanor’s definitely not into it. Avlynn is absolutely into it.
Later, Lysanor is attacked by a root and turns into a wereplant. Turns out it’s not even one of the Book of Beasts monsters; it’s just that the forest really hates him. I hear you, forest.
That’s ten dollars this makeup budget is never getting back.
Naturally Merlin takes care of it, and then, together at last and free of the hateful underbrush, the questers head out as someone fiddles with the Inspirational Bells setting on the soundtrack Casio.
They arrive at a CGI-ruined Camelot (not pictured, nobody cares) and sneak in through the “long and deep tunnels” (huh). Merlin goes for the Book as everyone else hangs out in the courtyard, and Galahad warns Avlynn to be careful since she’s so valuable, which feels like something you might want to consider before you and a Queen set out on a dangerous quest with only two other people.
In short order, Merlin discovers that the Arkadian is actually Mordred, falls for the old fake-book trick, and gets “forced backwards” onto the sacrificial slab with “magic rays,” which means a few glorious seconds of James Callis lying down with extreme prejudice.
Meanwhile everyone in the courtyard is on high alert for danger.
We’ll assume they’re all distracted from talking about whether Merlin will be able to conquer the Book or if he’ll be corrupted, which is a legitimate discussion. Sadly, that possession of the Book is actually the least of Merlin’s problems, since he’s currently held hostage by Mordred, who channels the world’s bitchiest maitre d’ as he tries to capture Merlin’s spirit in the book itself.
(“Draw me like one of your French wizards.”)
James Callis does his level best to deliver a scathing Merlin scolding (when Mordred asks about the sword in the lake and Merlin says he hid it: “You hid the sword?” “No,” he Callises, “I hid the lake”). Mordred wipes the smile off Merlin’s face by revealing his plans to impregnate Avlynn and raise a Pendragon baby. Yikes.
In the courtyard, the knights are facing down Gorgons, because of course.
Good look, ladies.
Mid-fight with the Gorgons, everybody piles into the crypt: the Gorgons try to climb Merlin, Mordred tries to sketch Merlin as fast as he possibly can, and Avlynn and pals are put in a freeze ray; it’s paced a little languidly, but I admit this is about where I started to enjoy myself, because why not. By the time Merlin’s broken free, distracted Mordred, gotten the book back, and died trying, and everybody runs for it as Tristan and Avlynn beat the crap out of some soldier and Lysanor carries a store dummy in Merlin’s clothes that’s so poorly put together you can literally see where joints have come loose, I was all in. (Double all in: Avlynn, who bends over the fallen Merlin and weeps, “I can’t stand to lose another.” Well then.)
At the Spring of Brittany, Avlynn brings Merlin back to life by caressing his head lovingly as she cuts her hand so that her blood makes the fountain flow with the water of life (or something, I was mostly there for the head-cradling). Mordred operates the Book of Beasts remotely, using the most intense invisible-book-page-turning ever committed to film, to summon the remaining Gorgons.
Lysanor the Terrible looks right at them, of course, and Merlin has to keep him from turning to stone using his deepest magic.
This honestly might be a fantastic movie, I’m just saying.
After the Gorgons are dispelled, Merlin spills the beans about Mordred and decides they’ll need Excalibur, and everybody has a big complicated conversation about the pros and cons as these two stare at each other:
Tristan remains unthrilled. He is wrong.
Things only get more overt as they reach the enchanted lake:
(Negative space! Nice, SyFy.)
At which point James Callis and Laura Harris just do whatever they feel like.
“From what I’ve seen, she’s more than ready.” (Actual line.)
(Lysanor nudging himself between them in the background cracks me up. Tristan is just embarrassed for him.)
Meanwhile, in a very good use of scenery, Avlynn must fight herself to get the sword.
Never has a fight looked so majestic, yet wholesome.
Spoilers, she cannot fight herself but must instead accept herself. She must also accept humility, as she prays with bloody hands for the right to wield Excalibur. Not like there’s much doubt, but the horn section AND the vocal synths are really happy for her when she triumphs.
This might also be a decent shot, but honestly at this point I think maybe I just want to visit British Columbia.
At camp, Merlin and Galahad catch up about how hard it was to raise two knight-kids, and how many people Galahad had to kill to keep their secret. Merlin’s very pleased with the second part. Galahad also mentions that he had orders from Arthur not to trust anyone else, Merlin included, which Merlin is also pleased with, in an extremely angsty way. Tristan and Lysanor also get a scene of chatting about Avlynn and Tristan’s parents; it’s a lot of breathing room for a SyFy movie.
Then Avlynn comes back with the sword. Everyone’s thrilled and gathers around to swear fealty, which I honestly don’t think she even notices.
“Give yourself a bit of a knock, did you?” Merlin asks her in low-register close talking. (He’s just openly stroking her arm in this shot, too. Whoever made these decisions was making some amazing decisions.)
Galahad is literally giving an inspiring speech to everyone about how this has brought them all closer to victory and now Avlynn will lead them. It’s amazing.
Not quite as amazing as when Mordred’s Death Hawks attack. Later in the production process, someone realized they didn’t have the budget for close-range CGI birds, so everyone has to fight birds they were told would be added in and were not.
Visit beautiful British Columbia! Lord of the Rings reenactments available.
Avlynn wakes up to “Lysanor” comforting her from her “bad dream,” but Mordred the Deceiver underestimated how deeply she’s not into Lysanor, and he’s forced into Plan B, which is to take his real form and use black magic to ensorcel her into becoming sweetly compliant.
I am not into this plot twist whatsoever, especially because I thought she was faking it and waiting for the right moment to turn on him, and was disappointed when I realized she was just totally damseled. Still, I appreciate that this shot frames them next to the broken remnants of their father’s Round Table.
Meanwhile, in a slightly less orthodox subplot, Medusa is super into Tristan.
Merlin, when appealed to for aid: “Can’t stop love, my boy.” We can all only hope to be as carefree as this movie.
The scene might be awkward except for a distinct vibe of “a handful of actors killing time until dinner break,” and all the eye-rolling and tiptoeing and gathering-to-watch and plinky synths are unconcerned with anything, ever. (As Tristan lifts her onto the altar for better-angled makeouts and later bloodletting, James Callis mutters, “All right, Tristan, don’t overdo it,” and smacks a gawping Lysanor on the ear. A deadly battle to reclaim a broken kingdom!)
Leaving Tristan to it, the rest of them confront Mordred, whose plans and facial expression remain unchanged. He’ll prove it!
Merlin’s not thrilled.
In the battle that follows, Lysanor manages to True Love’s Kiss Avlynn back to herself (ugh), Galahad gets turned to stone by Medusa (sure), and Tristan runs up, asks her “Will you leave me so unsatisfied?” (this movie has now referenced everything it could possibly reference), and gets his ass kicked long enough for Avlynn to cut her down.
During all this, Merlin’s gotten hold of the book.
James Callis, everyone.
Avlynn finally pins the book to the Round Table with Excalibur, nullifying its power forver, and then begs, weeping, for the fallen Merlin to return to her.
Her love interest, unnoticed, mourns his father, the most avoidable death in Camelot’s impressive history of avoidable deaths.
Merlin mourns him too, as soon as he can drag himself away from Avlynn’s platonic face-cradling long enough to intone, “He was a once and future warrior, who would be king.” (I was wrong before about this movie referencing everything, sorry, I think now we’re done.)
The new Camelot flourishes, the grain trade competing for supremacy with the Jesus Fucking Christ Where Did You Even Find That Thing texile industry.
“Will you stay,” she whispers, “and counsel me during my reign?”
After they’re done staring unblinkingly into one another’s eyes, the answer is apparently no, because Lysanor. His actual reasoning: “When you find love, when you fight for love out of love, well, then, Avlynn, you will find a strength that you have not known before. For opening your heart is not a weakness. It takes great courage.” (If this was a Marvel movie there would be two Tumblrs devoted to this pairing before midnight the day of release.)
But there isn’t, so instead of setup for a sequel, Avlynn and Merlin share a nice, platonic goodbye.
THE END! So, what have we learned? I think we can agree Merlin and the Book of Beasts is not a good film. Still, it’s bad in ways that feel like a budget might actually have mattered — sure, the monsters make no sense, but if they made no sense with decent CGI, would that be demonstrably different from Seventh Son? (I don’t know how they’d explain the Gorgons, but that’s the movie’s problem.) Would Avlynn’s quest to reclaim her throne with some dudely assistance be ridiculous if she had a 3D camera and some fancier duds? It’s only barely a more awkward film than Eragon, in which no one had a good time; at least here we know two people were really enjoying themselves by screwing with the subtext, and a villain recast would help with the rest. But who knows, really? All I know is, in multiple viewings and via all the movies this movie ceaselessly references, this movie managed to sneak up on me, and in the end, I accidentally enjoyed it. Serves me right.