Showtime's "Faerie Tale Theatre", the award-winning live-action series from actor/producer Shelley Duvall (The Shining), hits on all the big bedtime stories for its hour-long content -- ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Hans Christian Anderson as they filter into the focus of this mini-collection from E1 Entertainment, Princess Tales. Lavish, albeit dated, production values put on quite a show, while a wealth of '80s talent both on-screen and behind the camera pump each episode full of theater-style gravitas. They each feel like miniature ensemble plays than installments in a television series, having an easy time speaking to the younger audience that stretched in popularity throughout the early to mid-'90s.
Though available in a full DVD collection of the entire "Faerie Tale Theatre" series, this presentation contains four (4) princess-centric episodes: Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, The Dancing Princesses, and The Princess and the Pea. Each one lasts between 50-53 minutes, featuring an introduction from Shelley Duvall somewhere on-set. All of these episodes occur in the later years of "Faerie Tale Theater", between seasons three (3) and six (6).
Directed by Mark Cullingham
Starring: Jennifer Beals, Eve Arden, Matthew Broderick, Jean Stapleton
Runtime: 53:36, Air Date: August 14, 1985
Jennifer Beals (Golden Globe nominee for Flashdance) plays Cinderella, the girl who just wants to go noticed. After she falls under the custody of her step-mother (Eve Arden) and evil step-sisters, she's forced to do all the chores -- while the rest of the "family" lounges around and scornfully mocks her in the process, their "job". The torment they dish out has always been fairly forceful from all mediums, but the piercing cackles from Jane Alden and Edie McClurg proves to be especially aggravating as they start on with degrading her presence before "the ball". This is purposeful, though it can get to be a bit on the grating side after listening to their shrilling for an hour. Jennifer Beals, of course, helps to counterbalance their aggravating tone by offering a satisfyingly sweet and good-natured (and beautiful, naturally) Cinderella.
Eventually, Cinderella finds her way to the ball with the help of her Fairy Godmother -- played wonderfully by "All in the Family" vet Jean Stapleton -- only to fall in love with Prince Henry (Matthew Broderick) whom she's just met. A young Broderick thankfully received the opportunity to hop into Ferris Bueller's Day Off after this, because he's a little more stiff and juvenile here than in both Ladyhawke and WarGames. Still, his boyish charm pours through enough to get the point across, helped out by Beals' natural magnetism. Cinderella's transformation featured some crafty special effects for the transitions, nothing overly fancy but handled to a fine degree with the show's budget. It all comes together in a well-executed conclusion that shines a spotlight on all the positives and negatives throughout the entire episode, which adds up to many more victories than faults. Most of the lavish characters are grasped with a sort of iconic gleefulness, offering a bright and effective retelling that's enjoyable to watch.
The Little Mermaid:
Directed by Robert Iscove
Starring: Pam Dawber, Treat Williams, Brian Dennehy, Karen Black
Runtime: 50:45, Air Date: April 6, 1987
Many stories can be tied to Hans Christian Anderson, but The Little Mermaid isn't typically one of them -- as the Disney story usually defaults in most people's minds. Alas, this episode aired a good 10+ years before the film, supporting the dark and semi-contemplative nature underneath. It focuses on Pearl (Pam Dawber), a mermaid who takes the opportunity to swim to the surface and watch humankind on her 15th birthday. She discusses the prospect of taking her sisterly turn to the surface with her father, King Neptune. Brian Dennehy plays Naptune here in near-unrecognizable fashion, injecting a slight amount of humor and zeal to the king of the sea.
It's when Pearl returns completely smitten by Prince Andrew -- played by Mr. Dead Heat himself, Treat Williams -- that she ventures into the lair of the Sea Witch (aka Ursula from the Disney concoction, much more effective in this setting) and makes a bargain with her, a pair of legs for her beautiful singing voice. Karen Black really gets the mischievous evil demeanor just right as the witch, projecting herself in one of the more memorable moments in the episode. However, the show-stealer comes in Helen Mirren (The Queen) as Princess Emilia. Though she's a somewhat "lesser" character, she automatically grabs attention and lingers throughout the story -- something that, sadly, doesn't happen terribly well with Pam Dawber as Pearl. It ends in bleak fashion with an appropriate ending, but ultimately The Little Mermaid feels like it drags on for much longer than the time boasts.
The Dancing Princesses:
Directed by Peter Medak
Starring: Peter Weller, Leslie Ann Warren, Roy Dotrice, Iam Abercrombie
Runtime: 51:03, Air Date: November 14, 1987
Also known at the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses from the Brothers Grimm, this clearly steers away from accuracy in a likely effort to make photographing the story a bit easier -- as shooting twelve focal characters in one shot can be dreadfully difficult and would, in effect, take away from their individuality. Instead, we've got six daughters to The King, each kept under lock and key in their rooms at night to prevent their escape. However, their shoes seem to be worn through at the start of every morning, even though their door remains locked. To discover exactly where his daughters are disappearing off to, he offers to give any man their hand in marriage if they can solve the riddle.Enter the soldier, played by Robocop's Peter Weller, a philosophical man who rattles off double-meaning euphemisms with almost every statement anyone lets out.
After some babbling and a gold coin, he gets a magic cloak from an old woman (Zelda Rubonstein from all sorts of '80s awesomeness, notably Poltergeist) that would prove to be an important tool. He then stumbles onto a old cobbler (Ian Abercormbie) who informs him of the King's plan with his daughters, striking a quid pro quo bargain with the soldier. So much happens in The Dancing Princesses that it feels like the time simply zips by, as it rushes to cram all of this -- as well as a love-hate relationship between the soldier and princess Jeanetta, a lovely performance from Leslie Ann Warren -- into a 50-minute span. It does so without sacrificing quality or clarity, as the story unfolds around the Dancing Princesses in grand fashion. Some of the dialogue delivery gets a bit hokey, including the endless double-shot ponderings from Weller's soldier, but this was easily the most brisk and lively out of the pack of princess-themed "Faerie Tale Theater" episodes.
The Princess and the Pea:
Directed by Tony Bill
Starring: Liza Minnelli, Tom Conti, Nancy Allen, Tim Kazurinski
Runtime: 50:46, Air Date: April 16, 1984
Oddly, The Princess and the Pea offers both the most aggravatingly-constructed story and the absolute best performance from this collection. Taken from Hans Christian Anderson's story, we've actually got to weave through a bit of embellishment (read: time filler) as a modern-day security guard begins by telling a married couple the story of the pea. Soon, we get to the bedrock of the story about loopy Prince Richard (Tom Conti) being lured into marriage. His betrothed Princess Elizabeth (Nancy Allen, also from Robocop) isn't exactly doing it for him, seeming a bit vapid and controlling. It's only when Princess Alecia (Liza Minnelli) comes tumbling into the castle one night that he discovers a girl that's breezy, bright, and "fun".
Though the dialogue has some issues and the loopiness of all the characters grows a bit on the annoying side, Liza Minnelli's performance is absolutely radiant. She really sells us on Alecia as a stunning princess, though we can't quite figure out why she'd work her tail off so much for the absent-minded prince. She meets fierce scorn from Queen Victoria, who favors Elizabeth as a more proper match for Richard. It leads to an iconic sequence involving mattresses, heights, and a small vegetable, handled extremely well in this production. Liza Minnelli's frantic facial acting up on top of the stack is marvelous, reminding us even more that she's doing it for the sake of loving a dim-wit. But, oh well. As it closes and the story finds its silly way back to modern time, we're left mildly entertained but forgetting just about everything except for Minnelli's presence in The Princess and the Pea.
Presented in a clear plastic keepcase with glaringly pink inner artwork, this "Faerie Tale Theatre": Princess Takes collection will certainly scream out to the younger girl audience with its design.
Video and Audio:
Each episode is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame image, and all of them aren't all that bad considering their age and the source. Sure, it's pretty darn blurry in a few patches when compared to modern signals and a little pixelated due to the fact that nearly four hours of material are crammed into this disc, but the color levels and some exhibits of sharpness look decent. Skin tones naturally feel a little embellished, but not to any drastic degree, while some black levels weaken a shade -- though most stay pitched fairly dark. Digital noise and some garbled edge halos are the biggest issues, though they don't detract from the experience. In all, everything here maintains a steady stream of respectable visual quality.
Audio wise, we've got both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo 2.0 tracks -- and you'll want to go with the two-channel presentations for all of these. Sure, the music sounds nicely balanced in the multichannel mix, but the overall level-headedness with sound effects, music, and voice clarity just sound more natural in their natural Stereo mixing. Sound effects are going to come across as hollow and a little buzzy no matter what, but the real biting issue with the Dolby 5.1 tracks is some rough dialogue distortion that occurs throughout each. Also, it's worth noting that The Little Mermaid's 5.1 track is out of sync by roughly 3 seconds or so, but the 2.0 track is lined up properly. Opt for the lower-fidelity, original tracks, as they sound fine. No subtitles options are available.
Gathered together in an inexpensive, easy-to-spin collection of Peincess Tales, "Faerie Tale Theatre" offers classic renderings of bedtime stories in '80s updated production polish. Though The Little Mermaid and Princess and the Pea are somewhat mediocre as a whole, both The Dancing Princesses and Cinderella get the stories nailed down fairly well with proper pacing and (mostly) finely-tuned characterizations. Owners of the Complete "Faerie Tale Theatre" set should, of course, opt away from this disc; however, for the price and the line-up, it's easy to Recommend these episodes to a younger audience -- and you'll certainly find a few things to enjoy yourself while watching them, whether for nostalgia's sake or for simple storybook quality.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site