In 1980 when Shelley Duvall was on the set of Robert Altman's Popeye she read a book of fairy tales in her spare time. As she was reading, she got the idea in her head that Robin Williams would make a great Frog if someone were to shoot an adaptation of The Tale Of The Frog Prince. She approached Williams about the idea, he suggested she go for it and said that he would take the part, and two years later a small cable network called Showtime would green light a series entitled Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater. Using her connections in Hollywood, Duvall was able to convince a fantastic array of talent to work on the series both in front of and behind the camera and her intent with the series was to shoot each story as if it were its own movie. The debut episode proved to be quite popular and the series, which would be one of the first television shows to appear on home video in the format's infancy, was off to a great start. Eventually, Shelly wouldn't have to call up friends and ask them to appear in the shows - actors, actresses, musicians and directors alike would start calling her.
The first episode debuted on September 11, 1982 and twenty-five additional episodes would follow until the series reached its end in 1985 and Duvall personally introduced each and every episode. The series used the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson as source material and the results are genuinely impressive. The care and attention to detail in the sets, the costumes, the scripts and the casting choices all demonstrate a commitment to telling these stories right, even if the do at times take some creative liberties to give these adaptations their own slant. While Duvall deserves so much of the credit for getting this series off and running, it's the star power that she managed to wrangle for this project that kept it moving. Here's a quick list of who did what on each episode:
The Tale Of The Frog Prince: directed by Eric Idle and starring Robin Williams, Teri Garr and Rene Auberjonois
Rumpelstiltskin: directed by Emil Ardolino and starring Ned Beatty, Shelley Duvall, and Herve Villechaize
Rapunzel: directed by Gilbert Cates and starring Jeff Bridges, Shelley Duvall, and Gena Rowlands
The Nightingale: directed by Ivan Passer and starring Mick Jagger, Bud Cort, Barbara Hershey and Edward James Olmos
Sleeping Beauty: directed by Jeremy Kagan and starring Beverly D'Angelo, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Reeve, Rene Auberjonois, George Dzundza, Carol Kane and Sally Kellerman
Jack And The Beanstalk: directed by Lamont Johnson and starring Dennis Christopher, Elliott Gould, Jean Stapleton, and Katherine Helmond
Little Red Riding Hood: directed by Graeme Clifford and starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen
Hansel And Gretel: directed by James Frawley and starring Ricky Schroeder, Joan Collins, and Paul Dooley
Goldilocks And The Three Bears: directed by Gilbert Cates and starring Tatum O'Neal, Hoyt Axton, Alex Karras, Carol King and John Lithgow
The Princess And The Pea: directed by Tony Bill and starring Tom Conti, Liza Minnelli, Beatrice Straight, Pat McCormick, and Tim Kazurinski
Pinocchio: directed by Peter Medak and starring James Coburn, Carl Reiner, Paul Ruebens, Lainie Kazan, James Belushi and Michael Richards
Thumbelina: directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Carrie Fisher, William Katt and Burgess Meredith
Snow White And The Seven Dwarves: directed by Peter Medak and starring Elizabeth McGovern, Vanessa Redgrave, Vincent Price and Rex Smith
Beauty And The Beast: directed by Roger Vadim and starring Susan Sarandon, Klaus Kinski, Stephen Elliott, Anjelica Houston, Nancy Lenehan, and Stanley Wilson
The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers: directed by Graeme Clifford and starring Peter MacNicol, Christopher Lee, Dana Hill, David Warner and Frank Zappa
The Three Little Pigs: directed by Howard Storm and starring Billy Crystal, Jeff Goldblum, Valerie Perrine, Stephen Furst, Doris Roberts and Fred Willard
The Snow Queen: directed by Peter Medak and starring Melissa Gilbert, Lance Kerwin, Lee Remick, Lauren Hutton, Mary Jackson, and Linda Manz
The Pied Piper Of Hamelin: directed by Nicholas Meyer and starring Eric Idle
Cinderella: directed by Mark Cullingham and starring Jennifer Beals, Jean Stapleton, Matthew Broderick, and Eve Arden
Puss In Boots: directed by Robert Iscove and starring Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, George Kirby, Brock Peters, and Alfre Woodard
The Emperor's New Clothes: directed by Peter Medak and starring Art Carney, Alan Arkin, Dick Shawn and Georgia Brown
Aladdin And His Wonderful Lamp: directed by Tim Burton and starring Valerie Bertinelli, Robert Carradine, James Earl Jones, Leonard Nimoy, Rae Allen and Ray Sharkey
The Princess Who Had Never Laughed: directed by Mark Cullingham and starring Ellen Barkin, Howard Hessemen, Howie Mandel, Barrie Ingham, and Mary Woronov
Rip Van Winkle: directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Harry Dean Stanton, Talia Shire, Hunter Carson and Tim Conway
The Little Mermaid: directed by Robert Iscove and starring Pam Dawber, Helen Mirren, Treat Williams, Karen Black, and Brian Dennehy
The Dancing Princess: directed by Peter Medak and starring Lesley Ann Warner, Peter Weller, and Roy Dotrice
With some seriously A-list contributors, it's easy to see how the series found an audience. It's also interesting to see how various film directors, Francis Ford Coppola for example, fare working in the television/shot-in-a-studio-on-tape format. To keep costs down and speed up production time, each and every one of these episodes was shot not on film but using television studio equipment and on a much shorter schedule than your average feature film. Tim Burton, who had previously worked with Duvall on his debut, Frankenweenie, does an interesting job with his adaptation of Alladin And His Wonderful Lamp and while his entry doesn't have quite the macabre quirk that he'd later become known for, you can see bits and pieces of what would become his trademark style on display. Considering the era in which the series was produced, the early eighties, the production values are pretty decent. While in today's climate it would stand to reason that many of the more fantastic creatures would be rendered using CGI or a mix of CGI and live action, here the effects are handled the old fashioned way - with props and make up! Younger viewers used to CGI might find this unimpressive but those of us who grew up with and now miss more organic effects work should enjoy the nostalgia blast that some of this material can provide.
Of course, with as wide an array of talent and as wide an array of stories as we have here, there are bound to be some installments that work better than others. The debut episode is wildly uneven with Robin Williams running the gamut from genuinely funny to completely irritating, and The Dancing Princess falls a little flat but for the most part the content here is quite good. Highlights include Paul Ruebens' excellent turn as Pinocchio and his interplay with James Coburn and Carl Reiner is enjoyable. Eric Idle is great as the Pied Piper and watching a young Susan Sarandon go back and forth with the late, great Klaus Kinski in Beauty And The Beast is a treat as they're both quite good in their roles. Three Little Pigs, which is understandably played with a more comedic slant than some of the others, is cute while Snow White And The Seven Dwarves is notable for containing an interesting performance from Vincent Price of all people. Mick Jagger and Frank Zappa prove to be better actors than you might think in their performances while Christopher Lee brings some class to The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About The Shivers.
Some of the material is dated and some of it is cornier than it probably needed to be but overall you really get the feeling that everyone involved in this project was doing it not for money but out of love for the source material. All involved appear to be having a genuinely good time on the screen and it is hard not to get sucked in now and again. Watching each and every episode back to back is a bit much , best take these one or two at a time or find yourself suffering from burn out, but there's a legitimate sense of whimsy and the fantastic that permeates the show making it a whole lot of fun. It's a refreshingly non-commercial series that doesn't need to tie into a toy line or a movie to succeed; rather, it uses clever storytelling, efficient directing and interesting and well performed acting to hold its audience's attention. There are plenty of surface gags to will keep the younger kids entertained while attentive adults will note some rather subversive humor in more than a couple of the episodes.
Each of the episodes in this collection is presented in its original fullframe aspect ratio. Aside from that fact that the transfers are all interlaced, the material doesn't look bad. Color reproduction is good and black levels stay fairly strong throughout. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to complain about either. There are times where the series' age and shot on video roots show in the form of some softness inherent in the source material but there aren't any noticeable issues with print damage to complain about. While this material hardly looks reference quality, it's a perfectly acceptable presentation.
English language tracks are included in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Like the video, the audio quality isn't perfect but it's pretty good. The 5.1 mix isn't going to blow you away but the rears kick in now and again to provide a fairly good sense of depth to certain scenes, primarily by moving around the sound mix and some of the effects. The dialogue stays almost entirely up in the front of the mix. There aren't any issues with hiss or distortion to complain about and the levels are pretty well balanced throughout. The original 2.0 stereo tracks don't have quite as much depth obviously but they sound fine as well.
The best extra on the discs in the set is the 'lost' twenty-seventh episode, Faerie Tale Theater's Greatest Moments (a.k.a. Grimm Party) that plays out as sort of 'greatest hits' package that shows off some of the more memorable moments from the first twenty-six episodes in the series. It's been sourced from a tape but doesn't look too bad, really. Also included is a Vintage Presentation Reel that was made to promote the series and a collection of B-Roll Promo Footage. All of these supplements are found on the seventh disc in the collection. Each DVD contains animated menus, episode selection and chapter stops.
While the cardboard slipcase packaging could have been sturdier, it does contain a very nice full color softcover book that provides an introduction written co-producer Bridget Terry and another brief introduction by Shelley Duvall as well as cast and crew credits for each episode in the series. In addition to that, a '3-In-1' card game deck is also included allowing you to play with it as a standard deck, as a memory match game deck, or as a trivia game containing questions and answers about the episodes in this collection.
A quirky series that makes use of some excellent talent, Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater is an interesting, if sometimes hit or miss, collection of classic stories that will appeal to anyone who enjoys faerie tales. While sitting through all twenty-six episodes can prove pretty daunting, take in smaller doses these are fun and well made little bursts of oddly compelling creativity and good old fashioned entertainment. The audio and video aren't going to blow you away but they look pretty good and the extras, while hardly breathtaking, are also quite welcome. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.