Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has always wanted a Medusa hairdo.
"Oracles are true. Stories are real. There are monsters at the end of the world."
The late genius Jim Henson created the first Storyteller series in 1987, an imaginative TV show that melded puppetry, human actors, and other forms of modern magic to relate fairy tales and myths of long past. Where the original series was narrated by John Hurt in the character of an aged spinner of tales, accompanied by his curious dog (voiced by Brian Henson, Jim's son), the series that followed in 1990 made some dramatic changes. Instead of adapting European folk tales, this series restricted its focus to Greek myths. Also, a new narrator took the place of John Hurt: Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), whose persona is more vigorous and direct. Still accompanied by the dog, who often acts as an audience surrogate and asks questions to keep the story flowing, Gambon introduces and narrates four tales adapted from Greek mythology.
Facts of the Case
The Greek Myths series contains four episodes of about 24 minutes each:
• "Daedalus and Icarus"
• "Orpheus and Eurydice"
• "Perseus and the Gorgon"
• "Theseus and the Minotaur"
The original Storyteller series enchanted me, with its haunting mood, its lush visual landscape, and its poetic use of language. The Greek Myths series recaptures much of the formula that made the original series so memorable, although the overall effect is slightly less powerful.
Let's start with the elements that this series gets right. Gambon is a forceful narrator, with a compelling, robust delivery—a far cry from the elderly, twinkling narrator embodied by Hurt in the first series, but a very effective persona. Gambon's vocal quality is rich, and he handles the poetic dialogue confidently. Although Gambon has now achieved fame as the new incarnation of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, the character he plays here is so different that he is practically unrecognizable. The storyteller's dog is fortunately unchanged; this puppet character, both voiced and manipulated by Henson, is the voice of innocence that provides a counterpoint to the storyteller's experienced perspective. Wide-eyed in suspense at the turns each story takes, eager for reassurance that all goes happily for the characters, the dog is a friendly and humorous presence that the audience (especially the younger members) can easily relate to.
Where the first series benefited from scripts written by the multitalented Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), the writing this time is by Nigel Williams. Williams for the most part does an effective job of recreating the distinctive language and style of the first series, a style I have dubbed "poetic" for its elegant, evocative use of language and unusual rhythms and patterns to create a heightened mood. This somewhat stylized diction goes a long way toward taking us into a world where gods and magical creatures do exist, which helps us to believe in the fantastical happenings of the tales. Likewise, the beautiful way the story segments transition into the narrative intervals and vice versa—often through visual parallels—allows the viewer to move in and out of the land of the myths as fluidly as does the storyteller himself. It's one of the most elegant effects from the first series, and I'm very glad to see it repeated here. A particularly inspired example of this overlap occurs when the storyteller is summarizing Theseus's adventures: As he and the dog gaze at a painted Greek urn, the painted figures come to life and act out, in silhouette, Theseus's battles with the different adversaries he encounters. It's an economical yet artistic way of condensing the action.
Although Gambon and Henson make a strong team, the acting in the individual tales is somewhat uneven; some of the actors seem stiff and uncomfortable. The best performances are to be found in the first and last tales in this series. Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park) endows the character of Daedalus with remarkable depth and emotional range, and John Wood embodies the manipulative Minos with just the right balance between sinister ooze and comic flair. Maggie O'Neill as the passionate princess Ariadne is the strongest of the young heroines, and David Morrisey does an effective job of establishing Theseus as a flawed hero. The prevalence of familiar actors can be both welcome and distracting, as was also the case in the first Storyteller series. In the "Orpheus and Eurydice" episode, for example, Trevor Peacock brings a down-to-earth crustiness to the character of Charon that is familiar to viewers of The Vicar of Dibley, but those who know Gina Bellman from the comedy Coupling may find it difficult to accept her in the straight role of Eurydice. Some characters' interpretations are so different from the way I grew up imagining them that I had difficulty judging them with anything approaching objectivity. I have always had a soft spot for Hades, king of the underworld, but as portrayed here by Robert Stephens (Searching for Bobby Fischer) he is a stock villain with a Scrooge-like glower, not at all the way I pictured him, and consequently disappointing.
The mythic tales also offer slightly less scope for the creature effects. There are some creative uses of puppets, like the vulture character in the "Daedalus and Icarus" tale, but many characters are simply humans in creature prosthetics. I have to admit I miss the diversity from the first series—of creatures, of settings, of historical eras—but the classical period is beautifully evoked here, with handsome sets, detailed props and costumes, and loving attention to creating a magical world. Lighting and color design create an effective contrast between the warmth of the world of the stories and the grey tone of the narrative segments, which take place long after the passing of this golden age. The narrative segments show the storyteller and dog rooting through ruins, where the old artifacts they find inspire the storyteller to tell his tales, and this unusual framing device works well.
Audiovisual quality is decent but not stellar. The picture features noticeable black-and-white speckling, but otherwise it is attractive, detailed, and true in color. It is presented in full screen in accordance with its original aspect ratio. The audio mix is bold and effective in its use of stereo separation, but it features occasional buzz, and the volume of the dialogue is sometimes mixed lower than the musical accompaniment and seems a bit flat. These imperfections aside, the audiovisual experience here is enjoyable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The decision to rewrite some of the classic myths, most obviously the tale of Perseus and Medusa, seems like an unwise one. Many viewers, like myself, grew up with these myths, and it's highly annoying to see them tampered with. Again in the case of the "Perseus and the Gorgon" episode, anyone who remembers Clash of the Titans will wonder where on earth Andromeda and the Kraken are. With all the resources of Henson's Creature Shop at the series's disposal, the decision to omit the Kraken in particular is bewildering.
This episode is a disappointment for other reasons as well. The Medusa here can't rival the stop-motion version in Clash; her puppetry snakes seem to be suffering from spinal paralysis. The depiction of Perseus's climactic encounter with her is just dreadful—Medusa's dialogue is clunky and delivered in a grating shriek; Perseus scarcely stirs from a backward crouch when he should be advancing on her, and what should be a suspenseful scene is overall so awkwardly staged that it is best forgotten altogether. As dated as the effects in Clash of the Titans now look, that film still provides a far more dramatic telling of this tale.
The lack of any chapter stops within the individual episodes is a real disappointment, as is the absence of any extras to give us a glimpse of the making of this series. A show that offered such an unusual blend of elements must have been fascinating to work on, and I would have loved to hear the writer, directors, designers, and especially the puppeteers talk about their experience of creating this series. Sadly, the only extras are trailers for other films that feature the handiwork of the Creature Shop: Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and the upcoming Neil Gaiman adaptation Mirrormask.
Viewers young and old should enjoy Greek Myths. Even though this series overall didn't seem quite as strong to me as the original, it's still exceptional TV, and lovers of myth should most certainly give it a look. Like the previous Storyteller series, it is unusual in that it refuses to water down the more mature elements of the source tales for the children in the audience. Readers of the original myths will know that they are marked by violence, sex, betrayal, and brutality, and these elements—while presented with tasteful discretion here—aren't altered in an attempt to make the stories more palatable or child-friendly. This is one of the great strengths of these series, in fact: They don't dilute the very content that makes them powerful after the passage of centuries. There's a smart moment, for example, when the dog asks the storyteller if Theseus and Ariadne are married, since they have just spent a night in each other's arms. The storyteller simply ignores the question and resumes his tale. He's already told us all we need to know. For this reason, parents of young viewers will want to watch these tales with their children: They may spark some important discussions, and some of the darker content may frighten the very young.
Jim Henson's creatures are free to continue their work of making the world a magical place. Case dismissed!
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