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"The Soldier and Death," "Fearnot," "The Luck Child," "A Story Short," "Hans My Hedgehog," "The Three Ravens," "Sapsorrow," "The Heartless Giant," "The True Bride"
by Walter Chaw For the span of nine delirious, enchanted episodes, "The Storyteller", Jim Henson's too-brief foray into mature anthology fantasy television, is gorgeous for its faithfulness to its mythic source material. Although the show's longevity was certainly not helped by Henson's hard-to-shake reputation as the benevolent primogenitor of "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show", looking closer at Henson's twin, sterling blue masterpieces The Muppet Movie (which he didn't direct but definitely spearheaded) and The Dark Crystal reveals an artist steeped in a tradition of stung, existential melancholy. It's easy to laugh at Kermit's swamp lament or to dismiss, albeit less easily, the heroism of a soon-to-be extinct species desperate to save a dying world that has all but snuffed them out, but from a perspective of legacy, it's unwise to file Henson under "kid's stuff" and leave well enough alone.
Henson's brilliance isn't that Big Bird is silly--it's that Big Bird is lonesome enough in his uniqueness to require an imaginary friend (Mr. Snuffleupagus) more woebegone than he. And so "The Storyteller" (followed a couple years later by the mini-series "The Storyteller: Greek Myths") is a nine-film cycle that bears comparison to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue in scope and the precision with which thematic obsessions are compulsively hammered. By the end of the ninth segment, there remains a gulf where floats the ghost of some kind of resolution--whether in Henson's art or in the narrator Storyteller's craft, it's hard to tell and perhaps unfruitful to try. Of all of Jim Henson's projects, "The Storyteller" carries the sadness of its creator's premature death most heavily: it's more than just potential, it's also potential, and that's amazing.
Before offering episode-by-episode capsules for each instalment, I should mention that Columbia releases "The Storyteller"'s entire NBC run (four instalments of which aired in the United States as stand-alone specials, with the remaining five occupying the second half of "The Jim Henson Hour") on a functional DVD affectionate for the fact of it but not for any supplementary material. The fullscreen video transfer is severely compromised by pixellation and other like digital artifacts that might have something to do with the compression of so much information onto one side of a dual-layer disc, though the age of the negatives, the earliness of some of the composite matte effects used by Henson's creature shop, and the money and time allocated to their restoration surely played a role. That said, a better-looking presentation is unquestionably feasible, and "The Storyteller" deserves, somewhere down the line, a more respectable fate. (The DD 2.0 stereo mix is similarly unremarkable.) Trailers for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth represent, along with a short case insert, the platter's only extras.
The Soldier and Death
This episode, directed by Henson and written, as every episode is, by Anthony Minghella (his penchant for flowery, courtly melodrama a wonderful fit with folk tales--not so much with civil war romances, Patricia Highsmith novels, or WWI love stories), The Soldier and Death establishes "The Storyteller" cycle as one invested in Henson's empathy with heroes flawed by whimsy--as well as its laudable, remarkable dedication to honouring the dark ironies of traveled source materials. The Soldier (Bob Peck) trades his last three stale biscuits for a tuneful whistle, a magic sack into which he can order anything, and a deck of cards with which he can never lose. Using all three, he outwits a band of demons, one of which he enslaves and that later reveals the secret to outwitting Death. The consequences are dire, and The Soldier is doomed by his best intentions to wander for eternity out of Death's eye. Tight, funny, well-constructed in every way, The Soldier and Death is a model episode: for all of its technical cleverness, it endures in its deep respect for the purity and weight of story. ***½/****
The highlight a middle-sequence in which the titular hero (Reece Dinsdale), another wise Henson naïf, spends the night in a haunted tower to learn fear only to best a halved bogey in a game of skull and bones, Fearnot is finally hamstrung by an unusually weak story that never quite musters the sense of peril that would have lent gravity to its moral of the primacy of friendship and the redemptive power of love. It's sweet, but that's all that it is; its frights are more a showcase for the Henson shop's fury for design than any sort of palpable narrative fury. **/****
The Luck Child
A Russian folk tale that feels extremely familiar for its Western, Greek iterations (namely the Oedipus myth), The Luck Child finds an evil king killing the seventh born of the seventh born, destined by prophecy to one day be king. Luck intervenes in the form of surprise allies who aid the child in fulfilling the evil king's capricious quests. While the key to the episode is a huge Griffin Muppet animated, in part, by Henson's son Brian, the humour of its spoiled prissiness is offset by a melancholy subplot involving a doomed ferryman played with convincing dourness by veteran character actor Robert Eddison. ***/****
A Story Short
A tale starring the Storyteller (John Hurt) himself, the episode follows the exploits of our beloved narrator/trickster as he swindles a cook out of a meal and finds himself indentured to the king, owing a new story a day for 365 days lest he be left to the cook's justice. An image of our bard turned into a hare is disturbing (and cute), but the aggregate feeling of the piece is one of slight, clever filler--a time-passer between more serious folk examinations, if one that succeeds at the least in fleshing out the only continuous character in "The Storyteller". Not a complete loss, then, but the weakest of the lot. *½/****
Hans My Hedgehog
Disturbing and twisted, melding elements of the Baba Yaga tale with indescribable German perversity (Little Otik ain't got nothin' on this), Hans My Hedgehog deals with infertility, motherhood, child abuse, sexual maturation, trustworthiness, and self-esteem in ways horrifying and revelatory. It's so wise about human nature and the Gordian complexity of human relationships and the emotions that govern them that the episode's striking character design almost lands as an afterthought. The monstrous manimal hero, Hans, is memorable for his humanity and rage, and the episode develops with the sort of inexorable ardour that fuels the best bedtime yarns. Amazing and, along with The Three Ravens, the best "The Storyteller" ever got, which is pretty great. ****/****
The Three Ravens
Cycles of three rule this tremendous German folk tale, amazingly well performed by its central trio of Miranda Richardson (wicked-witch stepmom), Jonathan Pryce (befuddled father and king), and Joely Richardson as the brave princess who must not speak for three years, three months, and three days so that her three brothers, turned into ravens by their mother, can become boys again. Miranda Richardson establishes herself, as she has with every subsequent role, as one of the most consistently delightful actresses in the world, and Pryce's bewilderment at his betrayal lands with a kind of pathos unexpected in a series that, for all of its strengths, includes an indulgence in a certain amateurish, over-playedness in its equation. It's surprisingly human, making Three Ravens a fairy tale that works as a Shakespearean tragedy--and is all the more affecting as a result of it. ****/****
Bond girl-cum-Indiana Jones wench Alison Doody makes a brunette turn here as the titular "good" daughter in this adaptation of the possible source for the Bard's "King Lear". Sapsorrow's two evil sisters turn against her, as does fate, when a prophecy seems to destine Sapsorrow to marry her own father. Putting off the royal court's wedding planners with requests for three dresses, she finally disguises herself in a hideous skin and enacts the Cinderella story in a faraway kingdom. Fascinating for its location as the well for so many stories, Sapsorrow is wounded by Doody's amazing lack of ability to convey nuance, yet it still strikes a few inescapably disquieting chords en route to its deceptively unconventional conclusion. With the stakes high (the threat of forced incest a particularly sharp sword of Damocles), the episode flowers, only wilting during its somewhat routine courtship sequences. **½/****
The Heartless Giant
A bittersweet tale of virtue and the power of the word, The Heartless Giant marries Henson's dense visual ingenuity to a story that skirts convention with grace and a startling fatalism. It's useful in the sense that it demonstrates what a harrowing road life can be despite or because of one's best intentions. An episode well-modulated and full of genuine surprises. ***½/****
The True Bride
Little Voice's Jane Horrocks stars in this Narnian tale of a magical lion that helps a physically abused white slave, held in the mercy of a terrifying, wrathful troll. Not entirely free of the Christian implications of C.S. Lewis's feline, the lion here suggests the promise of redemption from a pagan evil, what with the True Bride's tasks of draining swamps and bagging feathers. Unusually violent if only in its implication of cruel domestic abuse, the episode fails in its reliance on its visual grandeur, losing itself in a secondary thread in which a greedy Trollop whose vanity leads to her ultimate downfall (while her male counterpart's greed does him in). Too facile by half, The True Bride lacks much of a moral while simultaneously distinguishing itself as "The Storyteller" segment most in need of one. **/****