Appellate Judge James A. Stewart adapted this review from an early German folk tale.
When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for…the Storyteller.
"What's in your bag? I can smell biscuits," says the Dog sitting by the fire.
"Imagination," the man beside him says. Imagination is his bag, because he is…the Storyteller.
The stories he tells come from little-known European folk tales (although you'll notice that "Sapsorrow," for example, resembles a darker version of "Cinderella") and Greek myths. His faithful Dog brings up all the things you're thinking as you watch, provided that a substantial portion of your mental processes is devoted to biscuits. So curl up by the fire and enjoy The Storyteller: The Definitive Collection.
Facts of the Case
In two seasons (with two different Storytellers—but one dog), Jim Henson's puppeteers spun 13 classic tales, nine from folk tales and four more from Greek myths.
Disc One: The Storyteller
• "Hans My Hedgehog": A farmer's wife wants a baby, but she finds that it doesn't pay to be desperate. "That woman wanted a baby so bad she couldn't care what she got," the Storyteller explains. "If she got a hedgehog, she'd bring its snout to her breast." Since it's a story, you know that's what she's going to get.
• "Fearnot": His Dog's fear of spiders—and his own fear of the dark—inspires the Storyteller's tale about a boy who doesn't know fear. "He's always wanted to know how to shudder," the Storyteller says. He goes off on a journey to learn just that, but finds that the shuddering begins when he gets back.
• "A Story Short": "What will I do when there are no more stories in me?" is a question the Storyteller ponders as he recalls just such a day. To make matters worse, it was a day when, if he faltered, he'd be boiled alive by the cook. Can his imagination come up with a recipe more compelling and dramatic than Storyteller soup?
• "The Luck Child": It's prophesied that a newborn blessed with luck will one day become king. It's a curse as well as a blessing, since there's already a king, and he doesn't want a successor handy. Here we learn an important lesson: While griffins enjoy dining on guests, they can be persuaded to sup on a really good goulash instead.
• "The Soldier and Death": When a soldier befriends a beggar, he's given a magic bag that can trap anything—even Death. You've probably seen at least one other version of this one, so it's no spoiler to say that when Death takes a holiday, it's no vacation for the dying.
• "The True Bride": "Is there no one in the world to take pity on me?" Anja, the human daughter of trolls, wonders as she's given another impossible task by her adoptive father. Along comes a lion with magical powers to give her a helping paw.
• "The Three Ravens": As the Queen's funeral takes place and the King mourns, a witch is thinking ahead. Her foresight—and a little enchantment—gives her a seat next to the throne. Trouble is, she can't stand the King's children. Maybe they'll be a little less annoying as ravens, she thinks. Maybe not…
• "Sapsorrow": "Only when the ring fits can the king marry," goes the prophecy. The widowed King must find a bride whose finger fits the royal wedding ring, and he's not smart enough to take it to a jeweler to get it adjusted clandestinely after he's found a bride. To make matters worse, good daughter Sapsorrow catches her two evil sisters playing with the ring.
• "The Heartless Giant": A heartless giant is imprisoned in the royal dungeon. Trouble is, Prince Leo wants to go exploring down there. He befriends the giant, but can the giant be trusted? Leo takes a few giant-sized leaps of faith here. If he's wrong, the giant could escape to pillage the kingdom once again.
Disc Two: The Storyteller: Greek Myths
• "Daedalus and Icarus": Daedalus, who built the infamous labyrinth for King Minos, must flee Crete with his son Icarus, since someone who knows how to escape the maze is, well, a loose end. Taking a cue from the birds, Daedalus and Icarus take wing, but things—or wings—may get too hot to handle.
• "Orpheus and Eurydice": Orpheus, the son of the muse of poetry and music, had a skill with the lyre that rivaled his mother's. His music brings the rain that waters the crops and even brings the nymph Eurydice into the world to be his bride. Can it help him bring her back across the River Styx?
• "Perseus and the Gorgon": Zeus impregnates yet another mortal woman, this time to fulfill a prophecy. Still, before Perseus can kill the king who locked his daughter in a bronze prison to cheat the prophecy, he must behead Medusa, she of the writhing, living hairdo and stony gaze.
• "Theseus and the Minotaur": It's back to the labyrinth for a dinner date with the Minotaur. This time, it's Theseus who's visiting the maze, with a string attached. As he finds himself in the labyrinth himself, the Storyteller recalls the story of the Minotaur's last stand and the princess who knew too much.
John Hurt's Storyteller (in the European tales) has the wizened, pimpled face of an old man who has survived a lot. Considering that he escapes boiling and spends a night in the dungeon in another episode, one can only imagine how many scrapes he's had. Hurt is very good at setting the right mood with an opener like "Imagine a cold night, and a dark night. A night just like this one…" You can just imagine listening to this old man by the fire, and he can even make you smell biscuits when there aren't any. Now that's a storyteller. He has a playful tone, which leavens stories in which a lot of people face being eaten, boiled alive, or turned into ravens forevermore. His dialogue isn't completely medieval, zinging us such lines as "He's hooked, line and sinker."
Michael Gambon's ancient Greek Storyteller is more earnest, delivering his epic tales with fewer comic asides and less of a sense of whimsy. As a tradeoff, he spins more of the backdrop of the mythological world into his tales. The more serious tone overall, both in Gambon's performance and in the scripting, made these stories less fun than the first nine. I thought these stories needed a little more of that levity spice, since they were the ones that were more familiar to me. They also seemed at times like placeholders to fill out that 13-episode order for resale reasons.
Brian Henson (Dinosaurs), the son of late series creator Jim Henson, who has since taken large strides in his father's footsteps, voices the Storyteller's Muppetty Dog in both seasons of The Storyteller. Funny how that Dog got from ancient Greece to medieval Europe; I thought it was cats that have nine lives. The Dog is a sort of Greek chorus, with lines like "I hate that witch" for emphasis. He gets in some sarcastic lines, though, correcting the Storyteller by saying, "Hedgehogs do not have hair, they have quills," or "I've heard this story and you're telling it all wrong. Humph!"
The stories are enacted by guest stars who become storybook characters come to life. Even when they're known entities like Sean Bean (Sharpe's Rifles, Silent Hill), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder II, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), or the comedy team of Dawn French (The Vicar of Dibley) and Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), they disappear into the stories so deeply that you may not be able to recognize the familiar faces. The medieval and mythological monsters by Jim Henson's Creature Shop mix the grotesque with the whimsical.
The production looks like that storybook come to life as well. Most of the backgrounds and sets have the lush drawn quality of a hand-illustrated work (I suspect the actors did a lot of performing against blue screens). The episodes telling stories of ancient Greece have a more realistic look, but they retain a lot of that storybook quality. You'll occasionally see fading, grain, or scenes that are too dark to read everything, but the picture holds up well. The sound quality also survives the years well.
There aren't any extras, unless you count getting a whole 13-episode series for less than $20. What could they have given us? How about a primer on medieval Europe or the original folk tales on which the series draws?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not quite sure if I'd call this a kids' show. The Brothers Grimm toned down their tales, but The Storyteller seems to go back to the original sources, so you'll find devils, death (and Death), and the occasional sexual suggestion.
When you see these old, old stories told in a Twilight Zone sort of format, you realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A good yarn is a good yarn, and only the names change as the years go by.
Not guilty. Gotta run. I can smell biscuits.
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