In its infancy, cable television definitely had delusions of grandeur. While the constant repetition of Grade-Z theatrical titles left a lot to be desired, networks like Showtime hoped to cut into American's big three viewing habits by offering original programming. The catch? Showtime didn't have to worry about ratings, broadcast standards, or anxious advertisers. They could take risks on controversial material (the gay-themed Brothers), cult figures (It's Gary Shandling's Show) or that age old TV taboo, bad sketch comedy...no, sorry, nudity (John Byner's Canadian import Bizarre). One of the more intriguing entries was aimed at children. The brainchild of Robert Altman favorite Shelley Duvall, this hour long look at classic folklore would soon become the critically acclaimed Faerie Tale Theatre. Over six seasons and 27 episodes, the well-intentioned series saw big name stars and established director's take on everything from the Brothers Grimm to the works of Hans Christian Anderson. After initially releasing all titles on DVD, Koch Vision is now putting together select packages of individual installments. In this collection, we are treated four works by Denmark's greatest storyteller: "The Emperor's New Clothes", "The Nightingale", "The Snow Queen", and "Thumbelina".
At nearly 53 minutes each, the four episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre featured here are leisurely paced and a lot of fun. They mostly stick to the Hans Christian Anderson storylines, though a few liberties are taken here and there for time and content considerations. Since each offering is almost a mini-movie in and of itself, it is perhaps best to deal with each one individually. After seeing how each one stacks up as a separate entertainment, a kind of critical consensus can be reached. Let's begin with one of the oddest, and best, episodes:
"The Emperor's New Clothes"
Starring: Alan Arkin, Art Carney, and Dick Shawn
Directed by Peter Medack
Season 5, Episode 22
Storyline: the narcissistic ruler of a small kingdom gets his comeuppance when two con men convince him that they can weave the most magical fabric in all the known world - a cloth that's completely invisible.
As indicative of what makes Faerie Tale Theatre great as well as occasionally grating, this installment substitutes characterization and performance for pacing, leaving the impression that, perhaps, the entire process of telling this tale could have been sped up considerably. Yet if said haste had been applied, we'd miss much of the magic here. Shawn is superb as the stuck-up leader who loves looking at himself. With his mincing, miming fabulousness, he almost steals the show. Luckily, he is well matched by Arkin and Carney, who play off each other with great panache. There is no a lot of comedy here, but the little bit that exists comes directly from their well-timed interactions. The rest of the cast is formidable, made up mostly of British stage aces, but it's the work of the three leads that reduces the amount of tedium one might feel during a hour long telling of a 15 minute story.
Starring: Mick Jagger, Barbara Hershey, and Bud Cort
Directed by Ivan Passer
Season 2, Episode 4
Storyline: a hermetic emperor falls in love with the sound of a nightingale's voice. He orders a mechanical one built, which he eventually wears out from overuse. Relying on the kind nature of the lowly kitchen maid, the ruler hopes to find the actual bird again.
Rabid PC-proponents, take heed. We are smack dab in the middle of a case of Cauc-asians Syndrome here (read: White people playing 'Oriental'). Jagger can almost get away with it, since he's forced to deliver an almost pantomime performance. There is not a lot dialogue for this depressed despot. Hershey also tries to stay as centered as possible. But when excellent Asian actors like Mako, Keye Luke, and Chao Li Chis are skirting along the sidelines as supporting players, the Westernization of the leads seems callous. Still, the story here is strong, one of the better adaptations by Faerie Tale Theater. The use of expressionistic sets works well, especially for the sequences outside the palace, and the entire look mimics the fragile nature of the narrative's premise perfectly.
"The Snow Queen"
Starring: Lee Remick, Melissa Gilbert, and Lance Kerwin
Directed by Peter Medack
Season 4, Episode 17
Storyline: a young boy named Kay gets a bit of goblin mirror in his eye. The Snow Queen whisks him away where he is held captive until his friend Gerda can come and rescue him. It is a journey fraught with peril and peculiarities.
Lightened considerable for cable consumption, the twist from evil to endearing for the title character may displease many of the Anderson faithful. After all, the Snow Queen is one of the Danish icon's more memorable villainous, the kind of misguided nature royalty that such class conscious stories relied on to invest the common man with a sense of superority. Still, with another sensational cast (Remick and forgotten face Kerwin are really great here) and a clear desire to play whimsical and ethereal, this F/X heavy piece is excellent. Medack, back for his second hitch behind the camera in this set, shows why he's expertly suited for this material. From his economical use of backdrops to the sequences where he lets the vision explode, his control over both the creativity and the content here is magical - perfect for Duvall's overall plans for the series itself.
Starring: Carrie Fisher, William Katt, and Burgess Meredith
Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Season 3, Episode 12
Storyline: a lonely woman wishes for a child, and she gets one - a little girl no bigger than her thumb. When Mrs. Toad kidnaps the girl as a bride for her son, Thumbelina rebels. She ends up in the home of Mr. Fieldmouse before finding the Flower Prince.
Like seeing a surreal sketchpad of old English cartoon carvings come to life, this rather straightforward take on the "Thumbelina" story is really rather excellent. All the actors are fantastic, and even if the accents don't always match up, we can't help but get caught up in the story of this diminutive Miss. If there is a downside to this particular telling, it's the elongated sequences between the Fieldmouse, Burgess' Mr. Mole, and our heroine. Some of these conversations, though beautifully realized visually, come across as time wasters, drags before the final act and the Flower Prince comes along to lift things again. Indeed, "Thumbelina" is a dialogue heavy endeavor, unlike the other installments here that seem happy to let certain scenes play out with a minimum of chit-chat. Still, the talky nature of the narrative doesn't really take away from the overall effectiveness of the piece.
Filmed on video and suffering from some of the issues - flaring, bleeding - that comes with old analog designs, the 1.33:1 full screen image is soft and sometimes purposefully fuzzy to maintain that "faerie tale" feeling. It definitely ages the material on the digital domain. Still, the picture is colorful and completely in tune with the otherworldly nature of many of the stories. Toward the end of the episodes, when time aided the technology, there is improvement in clarity and detail. In fact, "Thumbelina" looks stunning in its hand painted picturesque glories.
In a curious case of unnecessary upgrading, the original Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mixes are given a 5.1 Surround Sound tweaking that more or less doesn't take. Sure, there is more ambient space in the multichannel version, but the music, dialogue, and narrative are no better than in the original. Indeed, the minimal use of the back speakers indicates that the remaster is mostly in name only. Still, everything is crisp, clear, and easy to understand, and in the end, that's all that's important.
Handled with intelligence, imagination, and a true attention to detail, Faerie Tale Theater is a nice bit of nostalgia - with lots of emphasis on the last word in said sentence. This is definitely a throwback to the days when cable could take risks, support unusual projects, and not worry exclusively about ratings, revenue, and the reciprocal bottom line. Modern audiences may find it a test of one's attention's span given the way in which similarly styled material is handled in today's rapid fire artistic approaches. Still, there is enough old school goodness to warrant a Recommended rating. Nothing higher, though, since this represents only a small portion of the series' specialness, and the particular packing presenting here is sparse in the tech spec category. Certainly Shelley Duvall could have never imagined that a conversation with costar Robin Williams on the set of Popeye would eventually turn into a beloved bit of early pay TV reminiscence. While definitely of its time, it remains a fun and fascinating experience, even in this truncated form.
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