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".
"The Emperor's New Clothes"
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.
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"
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.
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.