Having mined classics like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Alice in Wonderland” for some satisfying special effects-driven minis, the team of Hallmark and NBC is clearly running out of appropriate source material. So instead of finding full-fledged stories to tell, they’ve now conjured four hours from little more than the idea of a mythical character that is best known to Americans as a cereal pitchman. Screenwriter Peter Barnes laboriously pieces together a narrative, borrowing obviously and heavily from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to give “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns” a necessary, but jarring, push. Perhaps next time, we’ll be treated to a “King Lear” with live-action Smurfs.
Randy Quaid plays Jack Woods, an American businessman who has come to a remote part of Ireland with the unstated, and therefore undoubtedly ill-advised, mission of buying up land for some capitalist venture.
After settling into a cottage, he goes walking in the woods, where he spies a beautiful woman (Orla Brady) bathing in a river. Jack discovers the woman is his neighbor, Kathleen, opening the door to one of the pic’s parallel love interests.
Meanwhile, Jack begins to notice that things tend to move about in his cabin for no apparent reason, especially a jug of homemade alcohol given to him by the landlord. When he spots a “little person” under the table, Jack gives chase, and ends up rescuing the creature when it falls into the river.
In a fun sequence, Jack then follows the invisible leprechaun’s dripping footprints back to the cottage, where Seamus Muldoon (Colm Meaney) finally shows himself, explaining that a leprechaun is in permanent debt to any human who helps him. After Jack nearly passes out from shock at the discovery of this secret world, Seamus introduces his wee family, which consists of wife Mary, a saucy Zoe Wanamaker, and son Mickey (Daniel Betts).
As Jack attempts to court Kathleen, the story turns to the leprechauns. Mickey, who, with his pals, invades the ball of the leprechauns’ natural enemies , the Trooping Fairies, falls in love with Princess Jessica (Caroline Carver), a match which will upset both of their families. Their love will ultimately lead to the accidental death of Mickey’s best friend (Tony Curran) and Jessica’s cousin (Jonathan Firth). Sound familiar?
There are a few differences here, and the story does abandon the Shakespearean plot for awhile, returning to it unconvincingly at the end. In leprechaun-land, the ultimate power is the Grand Banshee (Whoopi Goldberg), who has become so impatient with the constant bickering between the different fairy types that she takes away their immortality. It doesn’t help; even though both the leprechauns and the fairies are not cut out for battle, the two sides gear up for war, lead by Seamus on the one hand and King Boric (Roger Daltrey) on the other.
The human and leprechaun plots collide as Seamus enlists Jack’s help in preparing his rag-tag army for battle, promising to help Jack with Kathleen in return. Jack is also confronting his own moral dilemma, as he realizes his landed mission for the company is not in the interest of the locals.
The second night follows the efforts of Jack and Kathleen and Mickey and Jessica as they struggle to bring peace before all of Ireland is destroyed by the war. In a strange tonal twist, the second evening is actually far more amusing than the first, since watching leprechauns who’d rather drink than fight , and spoiled fairies conduct a war is more light-hearted than threatening.
The narrative here is all over the place, concerned less with unifying the story and more with finding new opportunities for special effects. And while there are some charming performances, particularly Colm Meaney as Seamus and Daniel Betts as Mickey, the fact that most of the actors were talking to a blue screen is noticeable. There’s often a feeling of disconnection in the scenes between the humans and leprechauns that isn’t intended.
While the tech credits are excellent, what the mini doesn’t fully capture is the sense of whimsy or rapscallion nature of the leprechauns. Without more needed touches of exuberant comedy from director John Henderson, and with a bland human plotline, the mini as a whole drags along, with only brief moments of offbeat leprechaun humor to give a sense of what could have been.