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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths
Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths
Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // September 7, 2004
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted August 21, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Mythology is perhaps one of the great, untapped resources of potential entertainment in the entire lexicon of the narrative. Certainly, several films – like Star Wars, The Matrix Trilogy, etc. – have utilized aspects of the classic tales to solidify their storytelling, yet there have actually been very few films that really rely on Mt. Olympus, its deity denizens and the mortals they manipulate for the basis of narrative. Certainly, one can point to Disney's Hercules or the Ray Harryhausen canon, with such films as Jason and the Argonauts and the camp classic Clash of the Titans. But, for the most part, the wonderful sagas of legendary creatures and their affect on humanity have never gotten their fanfare due.

So when it was announced that HBO was resurrecting Jim Henson's cult classic The Storyteller series, it was cause for celebration. And when it was further revealed that the focus of this new version would be on the classic myths of Ancient Greece, it seemed like god and goddesses alike could relax and rejoice. Sadly, the show only lasted four incredible episodes before going the way of the previous NBC installment, and with it went the hopes of ever seeing the vast canon of classic tales realized in live action recreations. Over the years, the show itself took on a kind of legendary quality, as it seemed to disappear off the face of the entertainment memory map. Like a half-considered conversation you weren't sure you really overheard in the first place, these imaginative creations looked lost forever. Thankfully Columbia Tri-Star has come to the rescue, releasing both versions of The Storyteller series on DVD in complete season sets. Greek Myths is a stunning, if sadly truncated, take on a few of the more memorable moments in classic mythology. That there are not more stories here is perhaps the only drawback from owning this amazing collection.

The DVD:
After spending one unsuccessful season on NBC in 1987, it looked like the end for Jim Henson and his dream for a Storyteller series. Employing a cast and crew of renowned British artists and actors, and hoping to enliven the small screen with folklore from around the world, Henson misunderstood one of the basic's of TV programming: just because you provide quality does not mean that an audience will lap it up like sheep dogs. Instead, what he learned was that there were few fans for a series that seemed to focus on a lot of foreign falderal. Without an ironic tone or some completely slapstick set pieces, kids grew antsy and parents changed the channel, looking for another form of cathode ray babysitter. In retrospect, the show got a raw deal. Far more inventive and thorough than most of the family programming surrounding it, The Storyteller held onto the dark tone and brutal truth intrinsic to many of the stories (in keeping with the traditions of such writers as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson), all of which made the material appear more 'difficult'. Yet for those who experienced the series first hand (this critic included) it was an amazing visual experience with far too many memorable moments to list succinctly. It was like witnessing a dream – or sometimes, a nightmare – come to life.

Greek Myths continues the tradition with a few basic changes to the show's dynamic. Instead of the hobbit-like John Hurt sitting by a fire recanting his tales, we have Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) as a fugitive slave, trapped in the labyrinth of Minos, recounting his stories to his faithful dog as they attempt to escape. Like a man too wise for his circumstances, Gambon instills his version of the Storyteller with a kind of fatalistic resolve, as if to mimic the mostly downbeat endings to the sagas being presented. The dog character is an obvious attempt to draw kids into the show, utilizing the hound to ask all the scary or searching questions that tiny home viewers would have as well. In combination with the brilliant recreations of the stories, our narrator and his canine friend act as a kind of gratuitous Greek chorus (forgive the pun), explaining the intricacies and themes abundant in these tales. While we are treated to only four episodes in this series, each is a superb example of craftsmanship and creativity. Individually, our focus begins with:

DAEDALUS AND ICARUS
The Story:
Daedalus is considered by many to be the greatest inventor in all of Greece. Sadly, his son owns none of his father's formidable skills in his awkward, clumsy body. When nephew Talos arrives, all intellect and acumen, Daedalus is immediately smitten. He treats Talos like a prince and rejects his actual child, the poor pathetic Icarus. But a rooftop "incident" leaves Talos dead and forces Daedalus and his son to flee. They wind up in the court of King Minos, where Daedalus plies his trade to build the ruler a labyrinth. When the evil monarch traps him is his creation, Daedalus escapes and forges wings so that he and Icarus can fly away. But when his careless son flies to close too the sun, it is yet another tragedy in this engineering wizard's wicked life.

Instead of focusing solely on the most famous portion of the myth (Icarus, wearing a pair of homemade wings, flies to close to the sun. The wax holding the feathers melts and he plunges into the sea), The Storyteller deals with the entire Daedalus story, from his accidental "murder" of his nephew to his eventual employment for King Cocalus of Sicily. Certain facets of the fable have been changed (the young relative, who is called Talos here, meets his end on a standard rooftop, not on the Acropolis as the fable is usually told) but it does not alter the overall impact of this initial offering in the series. There is a beauty and a grace in which this particular story is told that is lacking from the other three installments of Greek Myths. Perhaps because it must cover so much ground and deal in such dark subjects as death and deception, the Daedalus saga straddles the fine line between recreation and reinterpretation to get to the very heart of its hero's dilemma. As the title character, British thespian extraordinaire, Derek Jacobi, turns Daedalus into a terribly flawed and frightened man, always aware of the fact that people in power want and need his skill – and will do anything to keep it. More so than any other installment here, this portion of The Storyteller rides with its protagonist's emotional turmoil. And it's quite the journey. Score: 4.5 out of 5

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE
The Story:
Orpheus is one of the greatest musicians in Greece. He is so talented that his playing releases the wood nymph, Eurydice, from her tree trunk dominion. The couple fall madly in love, but soon fate hands them a cruel turn. While rambling through the woods, taunted by a satyr, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Determined to deliver her from Hades, Orpheus descends into the Underworld and convinces its ruler to release his soul mate. The emperor of evil agrees, but on one condition. He must always walk ahead of Eurydice and never look back. He must trust that she will follow.

A far more faithful reading of the classical tale (perhaps because its parameters and characters are so straightforward and uncomplicated) this tale of true love curtailed is one of the most magical of The Storytellers scenarios. Using a great deal of Indian and Arabic inspiration for its look (it meshes with the ideals of ancient Greece perfectly) and providing more sounds and images than words to work the narrative, this installment has the feel of a poem or a painting rather than a television show. The upside is the overall exquisiteness and ethereal atmosphere natural to this approach. The downside is that we never really get into the characters or their relationship. Eurydice is just an image, a gorgeous woman of ephemeral qualities. But we don't really contemplate much more than her physical attributes. At least Orpheus is allowed his music and his muse to channel emotions through, but even then, he is only an icon to devotion and determination. Interestingly, only the satyr, wonderfully realized and vividly vulgar, has any kind of personality. But once we get to Hades, it's just the same old English accented villainy with some better than average make-up effects. Though it has so very much going for it, Orpheus and Eurydice can't completely fulfill its promise. Score: 4 out of 5

PERSEUS AND THE GORGON
The Story:
When King Acrisius learns from an oracle that his grandson will kill him, he locks up his daughter, Danae, in a tower room. After a "visit" from Zeus, the girl gives birth to Perseus. When the sovereign learns of this immaculate deception, he tries to kill mother and child by drowning them in the sea. Instead, they wash up on the shores of Seriphus, where King Polydectes is instantly smitten with Danae. Over Perseus's strong objections, the ruler demands Danae marry him. As a "wedding" present, Perseus vows to go to the island at the end of the world and slay Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon capable of turning me to stone with her stare. He will return to Polydectes with the deadly dowry.

Again, this is another near faithful recreation of the epic saga. Though incredibly condensed (sadly, there is not a god or goddess in sight) and brimming with broad strokes, this will probably be the installment of The Storyteller that people THINK they are most familiar with (thanks in no small part to Clash of the Titans). Old snake head Medusa is indeed here in one of her more original incarnations (the bronze wings and the Legend-style demon head is a nice touch) and the manner in which Perseus pursues and defeats this beast is far better than Harry Hamlin's search and destroy mission. It is also nice to see Atlas included in the narrative, and the way in which Henson's F/X shop realizes his holding of the heavens is breathtaking. While the acting here is not nearly as incomparable as other installments of the series (basically because Perseus was chosen for his obvious angelic looks, and not his beast battling machismo) this is still a stunning and stirring telling of the legend. Especially clever, in both content and conception, is how the Oracle's prediction is finally explained and illustrated. It is indicative of The Storyteller: Greek Myths that this important tidbit to the story is handled in such a delightfully deft manner. Score: 4.5 out of 5

THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR
The Story:
Theseus raised not knowing who his father was, is anxious to learn his identity. One day, his mother tells him that the secret lies beneath a huge boulder. When he can move the rock, he will discover his heritage. Sure enough, the day comes when Theseus can move the stone and he finds out that Aegeus, King of Athens, is his father. He travels to the great Greek city, killing many infamous individuals along the way. When he arrives at his father's court, Queen Medea is not pleased. She plots Theseus's death, but does not get away with it. Learning that King Minos requires Athens to provide seven maidens and seven men to sacrifice to the Minotaur every nine years, Theseus takes the place of one of the victims, vowing to slay the beast once and for all.

The story of "Theseus and the Minotaur" is an example of the excessive editing required to fit the entire circumstance of a myth into a single 24-minute television program. Carving out all of the wars, battles, backstage politics and conquests to get to the fundamental story of man vs. beast, a great deal of what makes Theseus's story so compelling (the promises, betrayals and interference of the gods) is missing here. Still what remains is very gripping and entertaining. The way in which the setup is handled – the legacy under the stone and the trip to Athens – is expertly illustrated, but once we get to the final confrontation, something goes a little askew. If there is one flaw in this telling of the classic tale, it's that we never really learn much about the maze in which the Minotaur is trapped, nor do we see a great deal of the monster in detail. Surely, the first factor must be based in budget, since it would be hard to create a complete labyrinth in a soundstage for what pay cable can afford. But the other aspect, the creature creation itself, is another aggravating issue all together. From what little we do envision, the maniacal bull man looks magnificent. But the random glimpses of its face and/or mouth are not enough to make us feel the power and the precariousness of dealing with such a beast. While it is far from a fatal error, it does make the impact of the final battle seem a tad superfluous, as if this really wasn't the purpose behind the saga to begin with. Score: 4 out of 5

It's hard not to love The Storyteller. It understands the concepts of visualization in combination with literary integrity so perfectly that each show seems like the cracking open of an ancient manuscript of untold perfection. While there is an obvious debt to Terry Gilliam (especially his brilliant The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, one of the lost classic films of the 80s) it is the work of Henson's Creature Shop that is the most impressive. Everything else is tone and temperament, but without a viable Gorgon or a vicious Minotaur to instill fear and dread, all we'd have are very pretty, very passive pictures. Narrator Gambon's grasp of the gravitas contained in most of these stories really shines through in his performance. He is pitch perfect all the time, never once giving in to a self-determined tone of mockery or absurdity. It's just too bad that the series didn't continue, or attempt more of the meshing of different cultural styles like the "Orpheus" episode employed. Aside from the ability to witness the tales of the Titans, the Golden Fleece or the real adventures of Hercules, an experimentation with ethnic tone could have opened up these stories to a larger audience, one who might not be able to understand the Greek ideals, but easily relate to Asian, or even African, standards. While this may have made purists pause – after all, these are the myths of a decidedly WESTERN nature – the broader approach may have saved The Storyteller. Still, for the four exceptional episodes we have here, we can be eternally grateful. Family entertainment doesn't get any better than Jim Henson's The Storyteller. And Greek Myths is no exception.

The Video:
One of the most amazing aspects of this series was its stunning attention to artistic visual detail, and the gorgeous 1.33:1 full screen transfer from Columbia Tri-Star on this DVD is just splendid. Magical, evocative and beautiful to look at, there are no image flaws of technical defects (like compression or edge enhancement) to worry over. While many may wonder why a show so devoted to the picturesque would choose a non-letterbox, TV frame friendly presentation in which to tell its tales, there is no loss of epic scope in the 4x3 dynamic. The Storyteller: Greek Myths looks spectacular, faultlessly capturing the special splendor of the legends being evoked.

The Audio:
Aurally, The Storyteller is not quite the sonic feast that its visuals represent. The Dolby Digital Stereo is clean, crisp, detailed and filled with depth, but there are not enough channel challenges to make this presentation anything other than professional and pristine. Too bad there couldn't have been more ambient use of misdirection and atmosphere inherent in the Underworld or the Labyrinth of Minos. These little touches would open up the audio elements of the show creatively and give your home theater presentation more of an immersive quality.

The Extras:
The one major failing of this DVD package, and an attribute that lowers the overall prestige of this presentation, is the complete lack of contextual bonus material. While we are treated to three trailers – for other Henson projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth – we are not provided with one added feature explaining this series. No interview with the creators, crew or cast. No "Making-0f" or "Behind the Scenes" featurette. Not even a reference to the previous incarnation of the series. While we are treated to four entire episodes on one disc, all presented in near perfect audio and visual splendor, there is plenty of room for some explanatory evidence of the show's appeal or mythological foundation. The lack of extras is a blemish on the offering Columbia Tri-Star provides and lessens the value of the collection as a comprehensive celebration of The Storyteller's entertainment value. It is a true shame.

Final Thoughts:
Like four extraordinary gemstones encased in a basic, boring setting, the DVD presentation of Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths is a clear example of creativity triumphing over circumstance. This exceptional show with its meticulous attention to specifics, brilliant way with a word and masterwork quality imagery deserves better than a bare bones, basic digital presentation. It just goes to show the overall lack of respect that the series experienced, both during its initial run and its release on home video. Something so stoic and yet so approachable deserves a greater audience than those who will simply shell out a few dollars to relive a few happy memories. But that is exactly how Columbia Tri-Star treats this title. And still the tomes of classic Greek myths go untapped. Perhaps, with the success of such Anglo mythology as The Lord of the Rings and the advances in computer-generated imagery, the time has come to plunder the pantheon of oracles and immortals for their scintillating storylines. The imagination runs wild with what could be made of such fantastic, fanciful tales. The fact that under such hampering constraints as budget, time and technological limits The Storyteller: Greek Myths could excel to become something classic in and of itself speaks volumes for the creative individuals who saw it through, from inception to end. Anyone who is a fan of the fables of old, or the stellar cinematic quality of the original series, will adore this offering. Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths is a timeless work of wonder. It will make you wish that more of the amazing legends in the realm of mythology had been given the opportunity for exploration.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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