Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum! Judge Christopher Kulik found this beloved series as sweet and juicy as a plum!
Our reviews of Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: Magical Tales (published December 9th, 2009), Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: Bedtime Tales (published January 30th, 2010), and Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre: Tales From Hans Christian Andersen (published August 14th, 2009) are also available.
Once upon a time…
Shelley Duvall presents 26 ways to live happily ever after!
Facts of the Case
All twenty-six episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre are presented over the course of seven discs, with all the bonus material on the last disc. Here are all the episodes by order of airdate:
"The Tale of the Frog Prince"—A chance meeting between a beautiful but spoiled princess (Teri Garr, Tootsie) and a jovial frog (Robin Williams, The World According to Garp) results in a dinner date. This is one of many tales originally written by the Brothers Grimm, now brought to life by fine direction by Monty Python's Eric Idle and Williams' trademark comic shtick. (5/5)
"Rumpelstiltskin"—Another Grimms' tale, this one focusing on a miller's daughter (Duvall herself), who is forced by the King (Ned Beatty, Network) to turn straw into gold simply because her father said she was capable of doing so. The first night she's visited by a magical dwarf (the title character, wonderfully played by Herve Villachaize, Fantasy Island) who might just be able to help her. (4/5)
"Rapunzel"—One of the series' best, with Duvall making a lovely Rapunzel, the pretty girl with exceedingly long hair. After she gets stolen from her real parents by a witch (Gena Rowlands, The Notebook), she's locked into a castle and warned not to associate with men. Still, she joyfully lets down her hair for a handsome prince (Jeff Bridges, Starman) to climb. (5/5)
"The Nightingale"—We now make a sharp left turn to Hans Christian Anderson territory. A kitchen maid (Barbara Hershey, Falling Down) discovers a singing nightingale. Its melodies are so rapturous they even impress the stuck-up Emperor (Mick Jagger, Freejack). Lovingly detailed tale has no momentum, resulting in a slow and lackluster story, not redeemed by Jagger's wooden performance. (2/5)
"Sleeping Beauty"—Delightful, sexy version of the oft-filmed Charles Perrault classic. The tale involves a Princess (Bernadette Peters, The Jerk), who is being cursed numerous times by a wicked fairy (Beverly D'Angelo, National Lampoon's Vacation) and a good fairy (Carol Kane, Scrooged) which eventually results in the Princess being put to sleep. Naturally, a handsome Prince (Christopher Reeve, Superman) comes to save the day. (5/5)
"Jack and the Beanstalk"—Plucky farmhand Jack (Dennis Christopher, Chariots of Fire) trades his cow for some magical beans, much to the dismay of his mother (Katherine Helmond, Overboard). When the beans result in a giant beanstalk growing up above the clouds, Jack discovers a Giant (Elliott Gould, American History X) with an appetite for little boys. Straightforward adaptation lacks surprise and spark, with the cow stealing the show. (3/5)
"Little Red Riding Hood"—A starving Wolf (Malcolm McDowall, A Clockwork Orange) finds a tasty dish in red clothing (Mary Steenburgen, Melvin And Howard) strolling through the woods one day to deliver food to her grandmothers. After initial conversation, the Wolf decides to go eat Ms. Hood's grandmother (Frances Bay, Happy Gilmore), and wait for his dessert dressed in her nightgown. Delicious performances by the two leads (who were husband and wife at the time), give the familiar story a boost. (4/5)
"Hansel and Gretel"—An excellent dual performance by Joan Collins (Dynasty)—-as the grouchy stepmother and the mean old watch—-highlights this truly dark tale by the Grimms'. Two children are abandoned in the woods, only finding shelter at a house made of candy and chocolate, where they become virtual prisoners at the hands of the ugly witch, who intends to fatten the boy up and eat him! (4/5)
"Goldilocks and the Three Bears"—Oscar-winner Tatum O'Neal plays the blonde-haired waif who pisses off three mountain bears by eating their porridge, sitting in their chairs and sleeping in their beds. Like many of the other episodes, this one is expanded to include a subplot, this time about a ranger (Hoyt Axton, Gremlins) and Goldilocks' parents (played by John Lithgow and singer Carole King). Best of all: Alex Karras' raucous turn as Papa Bear. (4/5)
"The Princess and the Pea"—Polished treatment of Anderson story, with Liza Minnelli (Cabaret) and Tom Conti (American Dreamer) bringing finesse and energy to the table as a woman who claims to be a princess and a prince who just wants to marry a princess who's sane, respectively. In order to prove the woman's royal claim, the Prince's mother (Beatrice Straight, Poltergeist) decides to test her by making her sleep on 20 mattresses. (5/5)
"Pinocchio"—If watching Paul Reubens (aka Pee-Wee Herman) play the wooden puppet who only wants to be a real boy sounds nauseating, it's not. In fact, Reubens is remarkably restrained in the title role, and a hundred times better than the obnoxious Roberto Benigni, who destroyed the sweet, innocent tone of Collodi's original story years later. Strong work also comes from director Carl Reiner (as Geppetto) and Oscar-winner James Coburn (as the maniacal Gypsy). (4/5)
"Thumbelina"—Carrie Fisher takes on the role of the diminutive girl who is kidnapped from her caretaker to marry a toad. When she escapes she goes on a series of adventures, along the way meeting Mr. Mole (Burgess Meredith, Rocky) and the Flower Prince (William Katt, Carrie). Lush visuals and a perky Fisher make this Anderson story amusing. (4/5)
"Show White and the Seven Dwarfs"—Elizabeth McGovern (Ordinary People) makes a lovely Snow White in the umpteenth retelling of the Grimms' fable. Narrated by the legendary Vincent Price, who also plays the magic mirror. (3/5)
"Beauty and the Beast"—Several years before the television show and popular Disney movie, Duvall cast the famed actors Susan Sarandan and Klaus Kinski in the title roles, and the results are mesmerizing. Only quibble: the disjointed combination of scenes shot on video and others shot on film. (4/5)
"The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers"—Appropriately haunting tale by the Brothers Grimm about a young boy (Peter MacNichol, Excalibur) who leaves home to discover what makes him afraid. He gets to meet Christopher Lee and Frank Zappa, which should give you a clue on how freaked out it is. Fascinating if only for the fact it's one of the Grimms' lesser-known tales, with potent narration by Vincent Price. (5/5)
"The Three Little Pigs"—Get this: Billy Crystal (When Harry Met Sally…) plays the pig who builds his house out of brick, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park plays a sarcastic wolf who needs to find a pig for dinner, and Valerie Perrine is the hottest swine in the history of the small screen. Sound hilarious? You got it. (5/5)
"The Snow Queen"—One of the series few weak episodes, this adaptation just doesn't do the Anderson story justice. Even Oscar-nominee Lee Remick (Days Of Wine And Roses)—-as the beautiful title character who whisks a young boy away to her frozen kingdom—-can't save this. (2/5)
"The Pied Piper of Hamelin"—The only faerie tale to be based on a poem (by Robert Browning), about a piper who manages to clean up the rat problem in a small German town. Eric Idle is ideally cast as the piper, with terrific writing/directing by Nicholas Meyer and music by James Horner. (5/5)
"Cinderella"—Yet another version of this timeless story, this time bolstered by the star power of Matthew Broderick (Wargames) and Jennifer Beals (Flashdance). Congenial enough, though not really memorable when compared to others on the set. (3/5)
"Puss in Boots"—Outstanding all-black version of Charles Perrault story, adapted by Jules Fieffer (Popeye). Ben Vereen is astonishing (and very funny) as the cat who is determined to help his master become rich, while the show also benefits from the late Gregory Hines, as master Edgar. (5/5)
"The Emperor's New Clothes"—Another Anderson story, this one about a vain emperor (Dick Shawn, What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?) who reluctantly hires two tailors (the irresistible duo of Alan Arkin and Art Carney) to create a new wardrobe for him to do an upcoming royal fashion show. Great performances, exceptional makeup and costumes, but not as well-executed (or adapted) as one would like. (3/5)
"Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp"—One of the few episodes to actually surpass the more big-budget Disney animated version, which excelled due to Robin Williams as the genie. However, this version is directed by Tim Burton, both genies are (hilariously) played by James Earl Jones (Conan The Barbarian), the evil sorcerer is played by Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek), Aladdin is portrayed by Robert Carridine (Revenge Of The Nerds) and hottie Valerie Bertinelli (One Day At A Time plays the fetching Princess. Do you really think Disney topped that? (5/5)
"The Princess Who Had Never Laughed"—Widowed king (Howard Hesseman, The Rocker) decides to ban laughter from the castle after his wife dies, making his lovely daughter (Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy) grow up with an anal attitude. Realizing what he's done, the King calls a "Laugh-Off," and the one that makes the Princess laugh will win her hand in marriage. Will it be Wienerhead Waldo (Howie Mandel, Deal Or No Deal), a common pig-farmer? Most amusing story takes its inspiration from many ancient fables, including one by the Grimms. (4/5)
"Rip Van Winkle"—Directed by Frances Ford Coppola (The Godfather), this moody, atmospheric version of the Washington Irving story is strikingly designed, with Harry Dean Stanton (Alien) perfect in the title role. (5/5)
"The Little Mermaid"—Little did Duvall and Co. know that this story would form the basis of Disney's resurrection as the leaders of animation. For what it is, this version is more than adequate, with sailor Treat Williams trying to decide between a beautiful princess (Helen Mirren, The Queen) and a luscious mermaid (Pam Dawber, Mork & Mindy). (4/5)
"The Dancing Princesses"—The series ends on an unusually enchanting (for the Brothers Grimm) story about a secret held among a King's twelve princesses involving some dancing shoes. As a challenge, he offers any prince to discover what the secret is; if he succeeds he will—-you guessed—-get the choice of one of the girls to marry. Peter Weller (RoboCop) and Lesley Ann Warren (Clue) stars. (4/5)
If nostalgia is all about yearning for more innocent times, then Faerie Tale Theatre would be the cinematic pinnacle of nostalgia. Some may find it sacrilegious that I grew up watching more of Duvall's odes to Grimm and Anderson than Disney's animated delights showcasing the same age-old stories. It would be difficult to ascertain who was more faithful to the sources, but it really all boils down to personal tastes. For some reason, watching these classic stories on a live-action scale gave me a more realistic worldview of not only the fables but also the characters. Sure, the budgets were limited and the special effects are now deemed shockingly primitive, but I don't care.
For me, Faerie Tale Theatre remains a milestone in television history. It appealed to both children and adults on universal levels, bringing a fresh (but not necessarily new) perspective to these legendary bedtime stories. The humor was quite modern in many respects, but the narratives' magic and spirit remained intact. The most significant aspect of the show was the level of talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera. Many A-list stars were working for lower salaries at a time when cable television was beginning to make a splash in people's homes. Much of the children's fare of the time (including He-Man and Transformers) had become all about advertising toys and recycled plotlines of good vs. evil, making many of them owe a debt to the stories by Anderson, Grimm, Irving, and many others.
The show's successful five-year run is primarily due to the quirky Shelley Duvall. Nurtured under Robert Altman, she blossomed in Nashville and Woody Allen's Annie Hall, as the Rolling Stone reporter who calls sex with him a "Kafka-esque experience." Now known by many as Nicholson's wife in Kubrick's adaptation in The Shining, however it was her other 1980 film in which she got the role she was born to play: Olive Oyl in the live-action version of Popeye, directed by her mentor Altman. During the shoot, she read a giant book of fairy tales in her spare time. She wanted to executive produce a series filming many of the tales by Anderson and the Grimms, and convinced her co-star Robin Williams to play the frog prince in the first episode. Premiering on the cable station Showtime, "The Tale of the Frog Prince," proved to be a small winner of imagination and irreverence.
Each and every episode of Duvall's series boasts its own creative and visual style. Utilizing storybook artwork and paintings reminiscent of Wyeth and Hopper, Faerie Tale Theatre optioned for old-fashioned sets, costumes and make-up rather than blue-screen and opticals. As the title suggests, the series is certainly theatrical, but that is part of the show's charm as well. In addition, the variety of humor (i.e. one-liners, slapstick, satire, double entendres) was a key element which added to the genuine fun the actors seemed to be having playing these character which have been ingrained in our consciousness since grade school. Naturally, there are some jokes directed towards adults, and some of my favorites are in "Rapunzel":
Rapunzel: What exactly is a man?
The cult appeal is what led to Faerie Tale Theatre to be one of the first television shows to be released on VHS. Since I didn't have cable, I remember renting all those old Playhouse videos, which shamelessly only put one episode on each tape. I'm glad things have changed since then, and Koch Vision has stepped up to release the entire collection on DVD, replacing edited-down versions previously released by Starmaker II.
On a visual level, Faerie Tale Theatre has never looked better. Presented in its original full-frame ratio, colors are superbly saturated and grain is virtually nonexistent, especially considering the age of this series. It's obvious the show was shot on largely on video, with evidence of occasional light glaring (particularly on gold crowns); otherwise, there is absolutely nothing to complain about. Koch has done a tremendous job with their digital restoration and re-mastering of this beloved show and the brand new DD 5.1 Surround tracks is perfect example. The soundtrack sparkles, completely free of echoes and pops. There is also a DD 2.0 Stereo track. The absence of English subtitles is the only disappointment.
Unfortunately, the extras don't quite stand up to the audio/visual quality. Virtually all of them are of the vintage variety, with the most enjoyable being the "lost" episode: "Faerie Tale Theatre's Greatest Moments (aka Grimm Party)." Basically, producer Duvall has thrown a giant costume party with all her actor friends dressed up in their characters from the shows (Reubens shows up as Pinocchio, Mandel as Wienerhead Waldo, etc.), and the show opens up with her preparing with Teri Garr. After Garr leaves, Duvall knocks her head and has a dream where she is brought up for trial by the Brothers Grimm for "changing and destroying" their stories, while Duvall, argues, that the stories are not changed, just expanded a bit. I can imagine how Duvall got the inspiration for this show: answering letters from purists who feel the stories have not been adapted properly and "messed around with." This episode is worth watching alone for the behind-the-scenes interviews and end credit bloopers.
Also on the seventh disc you'll find some original presentation reels and promo footage featuring mostly Duvall talking about the show and rehearsing the introductions. All of them are interesting, but you'll be satisfied after one viewing. Koch has also included in the box set a companion booklet which gives plot synopsis and trivia on all the tales, along with an intro by producer Bridget Terry and an excruciatingly brief message from Duvall herself, which I'm sure was provided in the previous releases. Finally, we have a "3-in-1" playing card set which has pictures of many of the cast members. You can play regular cards with the deck, use them for a trivia game (as each card has questions), and you can play a matching-memory game with the cards seeing how images appear more than once.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Considering how many people love this anthology series, it's fair to wonder where Shelley Duvall has been. Reportedly in hiding since 2001, Koch was somehow able to obtain a message from her that's less than a 100 words. That doesn't really wash with me. Where are all the other extras? No documentaries about the making of the show? No commentaries on any of the episodes by Francis Coppola or Tim Burton or even Howie Mandel? Seriously, Koch, I know you're not Paramount or Warner Bros., but I'm sure you could have done a lot better than a companion book, vintage promo reels and a deck of playing cards, even though they're admittedly nice additions. However, it would have been cool to put in the booklet some information about the stories themselves and how they got passed down through the generations.
Whether Koch did all they could when it came to this latest release of Faerie Tale Theatre is something they are going to have to consider in the future when it comes to an additional dip. Still, the packaging is lovely and the sheer joy of watching Duvall's labor of love is beyond appreciative. Highly recommended for young and old alike!
Duvall and the show are free to go. Koch Vision are found not guilty for a kosher technical presentation, even if the bonus goodies stop short of expectations. Court is adjourned!
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