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Wizards and Gnomes With Heart


After conjuring up huge ratings with the lavish adventures "Gulliver's Travels" and "The Odyssey," NBC is hoping its latest mythical extravaganza, "Merlin," will cast a similar spell over audiences.

Executive produced by Robert Halmi Sr., the force behind those previous two NBC projects and USA's recent "Moby Dick," the four-hour "Merlin" features a star-studded cast, as well as more than 500 eye-popping special-effects created by London's FrameStore and the Jim Henson Creature Shop.

Sam Neill ("Jurassic Park," "The Piano") stars as the magical wizard who allies himself with the young man who is to become the legendary King Arthur of Camelot. Miranda Richardson plays Mab, the queen of Darkness, who created the half-human Merlin in order to keep the "old ways" of magic alive. Helena Bonham Carter is the evil seductress Morgan Le Fey. "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" veteran Martin Short plays Frik, Mab's conniving gnome and master of disguise, and Isabella Rossellini is the love of Merlin's life, the beautiful Nimue.

Shot on location in Wales, Scotland and England, "Merlin" is also populated with a fanciful talking mountain, magical horses, fairies and various assorted dragons and demons.

Director Steve Barron ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles") hopes audiences will say "Wow!" while watching the fantasy. "I hope they are going to feel engaged and really swept away by the scale of it," he says.

"I think people will be surprised again, as they were with 'Gulliver's' and 'Odyssey,' at the scale of it. It looks so big. There is a real romance to this. I think you do care about these characters and do root for them."

Barron says he tried to live up to the precedent of "Gulliver's Travels" and "Odyssey."

"They were both great," he explains. "That was good because straightaway you have standards you have to reach. I mean, I constantly waved [both movies] as my piece of ammunition at everybody. I said, 'Look, it has to be up to this standard, so I need this.' "

In depicting the character Merlin, Barron says he sought to avoid what he describes as a comedic "Nutty Professor"-type wizard, replete with a funny hat and voice and a long, white beard.

This sorcerer, he says, is someone "you want to follow. We decided to flip [the myth] on its head a little and have him be the sanity among the insanity. That made a far more interesting story. Legend didn't have him jumping around in a silly hat and screaming at everyone. He was a very wise man among a lot of kind of tyrants and crazy mortals."

Neill also strove to make Merlin believable to contemporary audiences. "He is half immortal, but I wanted him to be asaccessible as possible," the actor explains. "It's his humanity that interests me more than his magical and mystical powers. So that's the thrust of what I was doing. What I didn't want him to be was one of those cliche wizardly type of people. I have seen it too many times before."

Barron cast Neill--definitely a thinking woman's heartthrob--because he wanted Merlin to be "a rock. I mean a vulnerable rock, but one that you felt was relentless in his ambition. I always felt Sam was that sort of actor. He was so watchable, and you needed to be drawn into a story and drawn along with him. You are happy to join forces with him going through this adventure. The central theme of the piece is his love for this woman whom he meets when he is a young kid."

While making "Merlin," Neill discovered there are legions of fans of all things Arthurian. "There is an enormous following," he says. "It's on a Trekkie kind of proportion. I couldn't count myself as one of them, but on the other hand, I grew up [with these myths]. It's part of our culture."

If Neill is the rock of "Merlin," Short is its comedic heart. The versatile actor is in his element as the pointy-eared Frik.

"When you first see him, he's kind of a butler to Queen Mab," says Short, who created such memorable characters as Jackie Rogers Jr., Ed Grimley, Irving Cohen and Nathan Thurm on "SCTV" and "SNL." "It's pretty amazing--the makeup. The biggest transformation is when Mab sends him off to woo Helena Bonham Carter. She changes him into sort of a dashing soul. Lucky me."

Short jumped at the chance to play Frik because, he says, the role gave him the opportunity to create seven diverse incarnations of the character. Besides, he quips, "the list is not that long for people who can play Frik the bony gnome--me and John Goodman. That's it."

He also liked the fact that Frik and Mab are not painted as purely evil. "Mab knows if people stop believing in magic and believe in [Christianity], that her world, in fact, will disappear. She'll lose her power. She believes that people need to believe in fantasy."

Frik, Short explains, starts out a "little muddied and finds his way. You can't give the story away, of course, but he does fall in love. I think that loves makes him alter his course and makes him become a different gnome."

Merlin, too, is endearingly flawed. "He has great powers and is a man of action and a mystical man," Neill says. "But he's also very human, too. He makes terrible mistakes. But that's why you relate to him. If he was a super mensch you would be bored."

"Merlin" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC.

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