Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can shade our memories and magnify tiny enjoyable aspects of events until they are all we can remember. Unfortunately, in the absence of nostalgia and without any context to fall back on, we are forced to view events through an entirely different prism. This is the problem I'm facing with Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales & Legends since I never saw it when it first aired. I recognize the pedigree of the show, coming as it did after the wildly popular Faerie Tale Theatre. It clearly has quite a few big stars appearing in it. And yet, I can't deny just how little I enjoyed it.
As I mentioned Tall Tales & Legends started airing its episodes on TV after Duvall's previous venture, Faerie Tale Theatre had captured the minds of children across the country. The concept was simple: Retell famous stories while casting recognizable faces in the leading roles. While Faerie Tale Theatre stuck to well known fables, Tall Tales & Legends took a few more risks in the source material it drew upon. Here are all 9 episodes of the show as included in this release:
As you can see, the sources are pretty diverse. With Sleepy Hollow, we get to see Ed Begley Jr. take on the role of cowardly Ichabod Crane as essayed in Washington Irving's short story. Pecos Bill gives us Steve Guttenberg dipping into folklore to show us what the very first American Cowboy may have looked like. Casey at the Bat and Darlin' Clementine go even further left field by adapting a poem and a western ballad respectively. Elliott Gould plays Casey, a scrappy baseball player just looking for his shot at the big time while Shelley Duvall herself gives a touching portrayal of the sweet-natured Clementine who is wistfully remembered by loved ones after her death. From there we move onto sunnier terrain with Martin Short's madcap portrayal of Johnny Appleseed in an episode directed by Christopher Guest. Ponce De Leon gives us a taste of adventure with Michael York playing the Spanish explorer who sets out for the fountain of youth and finds Florida along the way. In John Henry, Danny Glover is cast as the folk hero who took on a steam powered drill in order to protect the interest of the working man. With Davy Crockett, we get a taste of country singer Mac Davis tackling the role of the famous frontiersman while Jamie Lee Curtis brings the show to a rousing finish with her portrayal of sharp-shooting Annie Oakley.
Despite an interesting choice of tales and the all-star cast, Tall Tales hardly ever fires on all cylinders. Of the 9 episodes, I would say only 3 tales actually achieve their goal of being educational AND entertaining. Before I get to them however, let me address the low points first. Sleepy Hollow, Casey at the Bat and John Henry commit the cardinal sin of children's programming by being dreadfully boring. Weak and drawn out plotting sucks the energy out of Irving's tale of the headless horseman while Ed Begley Jr. takes cowardice to annoying extremes. Speaking of extremes, Glover's over the top portrayal of John Henry sinks the entire episode. If I hear once more how he was a 'natural born man, nothing more, nothing less', I'm inclined to take his 20 pound hammer and put me out of my misery. Casey at the Bat is possibly the single most boring episode of the entire show which threatens to put you to sleep when it isn't shocking you with the cheapness of the set design. We repeatedly see shots where cast members are standing next to cardboard cut-outs meant to represent audience members at a baseball game. It's an odd choice which repeatedly drew my attention away from Casey and his plight. Another triplet of episodes prove to be a little better but not by much. Pecos Bill threatens to overstay its welcome but is saved by an inspiringly free-spirited performance from Guttenberg. Ponce De Leon comes off as Indiana Jones lite for the kids but features the curious decision of having Michael York play a Spanish explorer who sounds like Michael York. Davy Crockett is the strangest of the bunch. We get Crockett giving bears the evil eye, redirecting comets and taking on Andrew Jackson. For some reason, that wasn't enough so Crockett's entire story is inserted into the framework of a time-traveling kid's after-school special.
Looking past my harsh words for a number of the episodes, Tall Tales is not without its bright spots. Darlin' Clementine features a surprisingly mature portrayal of love and loss set against the backdrop of the gold rush. Shelley Duvall's timid but sweet performance as Clementine pairs nicely with David Dukes as Levi the Renaissance man. Another strong female performance anchors Annie Oakley's tale. Jamie Lee Curtis is stellar in the role of the sharp-shooter who remains playful and sincere even in the face of Buffalo Bill Cody's (Brian Dennehy) childish behavior. I've saved the best for last and that is the story of Johnny Appleseed. This episode has the distinction of being the only one where absolutely all the parts work in unison producing a tale that is educational, intersting and downright fun. Credit for this largely goes to Martin Short in the titular role and Christopher Guest handling directorial duties. Short relishes the opportunity to play a character whose internal logic is sound yet indecipherable to others. Guest in turn, leaves his comedic fingerprints all over the piece, especially in his treatment of the chief villain as portrayed by Rob Reiner. I spoke earlier of nostalgia and I believe that may kick in when it comes to some of the better episodes I just mentioned. If you were a child of the 80s and remember watching Johnny Appleseed with Martin Short or Annie Oakley with Jamie Lee Curtis and think that all of Tall Tales will stand up to your fond memories, you may be in for a rude surprise.