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Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: The Complete Collection
Looks can be deceiving. Shelley Duvall, who typically plays wide-eyed naïfs or hapless (and helpless) damsels in distress, would not strike the average viewer as a power-playing, deal-making producer type. And yet she ably provided just such a role for the much heralded television series Faerie Tale Theatre, being re-released in a new upgraded version here with all 26 episodes plus some exclusive bonus content. If the individual episodes never quite attain the nutty hilarity of Rocky and Bullwinkle's "Fractured Fairy Tales," and often seem bloated beyond what really should have been a 30 minute running time, they nonetheless offer a truly mind-boggling array of talent putting a post-modernist spin on a lot of hoary sagas that we all grew up with, for better or worse.
Faerie Tale Theatre ran six seasons (though truth be told, some seasons were extremely short, for instance the first, which only had two episodes) from 1982-1987. Its sporadic appearances probably only added to its luster through its broadcast era and then the intervening years, and it has amassed a considerable cult following who will no doubt be thrilled by this latest DVD release. As she recounts in a lavish illustrated book which accompanies this latest release, Duvall had brought along a copy of "Grimm's Fairy Tales" to read while she was filming Popeye with Robin Williams. When she got to the story "The Frog Prince," she immediately recognized what a great frog Williams could be (I'm assuming that that was meant as a compliment), and so the seed of the show was planted.
Duvall assembled a stellar list of talent, both in front of and behind the camera, for virtually every episode, including Robin Williams (yes, as the Frog Prince), Vincent Price, Helen Mirren, Teri Garr, Howie Mandel, Liza Minnelli, Tim Conway, Lee Remick, James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, Carrie Fisher, Vanessa Redgrave, Mary Steenburgen, and Malcolm McDowell, just for starters. There's some brilliant stunt casting, too, including several musicians in acting roles, including Carole King, Mick Jagger and Frank Zappa. Occasionally a guest star will perform whose appearance is instantly poignant due to intervening events, as in the case of a strapping Christopher Reeve as the Prince in the Theatre version of "Sleeping Beauty." Directorial, writing and other offscreen talent is no less diverse and noteworthy, and includes such vaunted names as Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Vadim, Tim Burton, Eric Idle, and Roddy McDowall. Many of the episodes are helmed by The Ruling Class' brilliant Peter Medak, who brings his subtly subversive worldview into play with some disarming slyness.
The series presents each fairy tale in a more or less "authentic" version, basic storyline-wise anyway, with more modern interpolations poking through the surface, not always to glorious effect. While Robin Williams is fun and typically manic as the frog in "The Frog Prince," and some of his riffing is hilarious (his one-man talent show is a highlight), at other times his schtick just brings proceedings to a grinding halt. At other times, however, the result is perfectly delightful, as in an African American take on "Puss n Boots," with the unbeatable cast of Gregory Hines, Ben Vereen, Alfre Woodard and the inimitable Brock Peters performing a neatly conceived script by none other than Jules Feiffer. And in "Beauty and the Beast," none other than Werner Herzog regular Klaus Kinski makes a more than believable Beast (especially in some formidable makeup), with Susan Sarandon a perhaps atypically (at least for her) glamorous Beauty, in an episode that owes a major debt of gratitude to Jean Cocteau's imaginary retelling of the "tale as old as time."
The series has above-average use of special effects, including a fairly omnipresent utilization of green screen, but with some more ambitious fodder thrown in from time to time. Settings are acceptably lush, and costuming and makeup are truly superb. In fact, I defy you to correctly identify the actor playing King Geoffrey in "The Frog Prince" before the end credits role. His identity came as a complete, and pretty funny, surprise to me at least. The beautiful paintings which serve as backdrops for many episodes are suitably whimsical and perfectly capture the otherworldly flavor of the stories being presented. Several artists' styles are mimicked in these efforts, including Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish, giving a nice visual variety to the proceedings.
Duvall also hired some unusual composers for the project (though I personally would have loved for Zappa to have scored the episode he appeared in). Providing underscore for various episodes are such renowned songwriters and players as Jimmy Webb and Tom Scott. Though some of the music is hampered by the typical (and bothersome) synthesizers of the day, for the most part the musical contributions are first rate and immeasurably aid the playful feel of the show.
Lo and behold, Faerie Tale Theatre looks surprisingly sharp for its age, with virtually none of the softness that accompanies most mid-80s television fare. Colors are strong, detail is solid and the image is surprisingly clear and damage free. I had my expectations happily upended viewing this series.
Even better than the image is the sound mix, available in both DD 2.0 and 5.1 tracks. There's a surprising amount of detail in these soundtracks, with cogent use of separation. There's really not enough to completely fill a 5.1 mix, if we're being completely honest, but both audio choices offer excellent clarity, fidelity and separation.
Even if you've purchased previous releases of Faerie Tale Theatre, you may be sorely tempted to get this set for its extras. The DVDs feature the long-lost "27th episode" of the show, a sort of party celebrating the first several episodes of the show. It's in surprisingly good shape, though obviously taken from a video master that has some very slight wobble at times. There's also a presentation reel with Duvall which helped to sell the series, and a very short B-roll of various actors doing Showtime promos (which seem to be culled from the same party as the lost episode). Aside from the DVD extras, there's the very nice, informative illustrated book mentioned above, which features synopses of all the episodes along with some trivia. And in what may be a first for a DVD extra, there's a pack of cards (with characters from the episodes on them) which according to the "directions" can be used for either standard card games, a memory matching game or trivia featuring actors and their roles.
Personally I think Faerie Tale Theatre would have benefited from a standardized, shorter running time, but the series is so distinctive and imaginative that even its overblown aspects can be charming if taken with a grain of patience. This is a show that kids of all ages can enjoy, with unusually high production values and an unmatched combination of cast and crew. This show deservedly won the prized Peabody Award, and this finally complete re-release does it justice with a nicely boxed and extra-filled set that everyone will enjoy. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet