Steve Barron. Release Date: April 26, 1998. DVD Release Date: September 18, 2001.
There was a time, for about a decade, when made-for-TV movies weren't limited to Lifetime movies starring washed up celebrities like Meredith Baxter Birney. They were relatively big budget productions, filled with acting talent, beautiful cinematography, special effects and major names of the day. The process started with the release of an Alice In Wonderland live action film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Red Skelton, and more people than I can remember 15 years later. There were others, all released in spring, and all taken from classical literature or mythology. I remember one about leprechauns, a series on Homer's Illiad and Odyssey, and a 1001 Arabian Nights. There were probably others, but it was always Merlin that stood out most clearly in my mind. These were movies that were relatively on par with what you'd find in the big screen in their time, the only difference being largely that a family of four could sit down and screen one of these over four week nights for free rather than spending $50 at the local cinema for a two hour experience. What these TV movies did was bring "movie magic" to our homes, and probably really for the first time.
I've never read the Arthurian legends, and don't know much about the Pendragon Cycle, but I can't imagine that this isn't a successful telling of the tale. It has what I would have expected of one of the mini-series films of the time, and then some. At the time, I wondered why this hadn't been filmed for release on the big screen. In this story, Merlin is portrayed as a reluctant hero (one of my favorite kinds), a man who hates magic, only using it when forced to by the... chaotically neutral Queen Mab (sue me, I once played Dungeons and Dragons). I hate to call her evil, even though she's the villain of the piece, because while she's doing bad things, her mindset makes it hard to blame her for her actions. Her role is far more complicated, as she's struggling to survive, and she's merely doing what she thinks she needs to do. Like in many mythologies, the existence of magical creatures only continues for so long as mortal hearts believe in them, and England is slowly being converted to Christianity, a religion that is intolerant of Mab and her Old Ways. So Mab's very existence is in danger, and no amount of clapping is going to set that right.
The cast is outstanding, and many of them are at the tops of their game. When I found this in a Best Buy in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago, I couldn't pass at to chance to see it again. This will be difficult to find if you don't have access to something like Netflix or Blockbuster Online, but the search will definitely be worth it.