Monday, June 19, 2017

Rank 'Em: "The Storyteller"

"The Storyteller" is one of my favorite fantasy series, created by Jim Henson in the late 1980s. Only nine episodes were produced, each scripted by Anthony Minghella and based off of traditional fairy tales and folk tales. A later spinoff series would add four more stories based on Greek myths. With John Hurt acting as our host and narrator, each story was told with a mixture of live action and puppetry, with some gorgeous effects work that still impresses to this day. After debating over the best format to discuss the series, I settled on a "Rank 'Em" post, so I could talk about each episode.

"Hans My Hedgehog" - Embodies everything I love about the series: the use of mixed media, the willingness to explore dark (but not too dark) themes, and the excellent performances. I really felt for the characters here, which I wasn't expecting from a story about a giant hedgehog and a princess. There's also the the visual style, which would carry through all the episodes, full of frame-blurring asides, beautiful transitions, and clever optical tricks.

"The Heartless Giant" - Jim Henson directed this one himself, and no wonder. This may be the most effect-heavy episode thanks to the many scenes dealing with differently scaled actors and props. I also found it to be one of the most affecting, since there's a price for the hero's victory and the ending is bittersweet. I wonder why more of the "Storyteller" installments didn't feature younger actors, since Elliott Spiers was so fantastic in this one as the lead.

"The Soldier and Death" - I love every version of the "Godfather Death" and "Soldier Jack" stories that I've come across, and this episode combines the two with some inventive puppetry work and excellent writing. The childlike version of Death who appears here is utterly unique from any other version I've ever seen, and the little red devils are weirdly hilarious. There's also a melancholy quality to the episode, particularly the ending, that I found very appealing.

"Sapsorrow" - My favorite episode when I was a kid, this is the the "Storyteller" take on the Cinderella story, that also borrows bits and pieces of other familiar tales. I love the little subversions here, especially how the glass slipper turns out to be a test for the prince, rather than the princess. And thanks to an elaborate disguise, the princess also gets to be the episode's creature. Comedy fans should note that French and Saunders play the Ugly Stepsisters.

"The Three Ravens" - Based on "The Six Swans," the most star-studded episode of the set features Miranda Richardson as a fantastically evil stepmother and witch and Joely Richardson as the Princess. The imagery in this one is particularly strong, with its dramatic spellcasting and transformations. It was the shock of the disappearing babies that stuck with me, though, and I always thought of "The Three Ravens" as one of the most horrific installments of the series.

"The True Bride" - This was the first episode I saw, when it aired as part of "The Jim Henson Hour," and when I hunted the series down many years later, I was delighted that it had lost none of its charm and appeal. There are three different featured creatures here, all of them wonderful in different ways. The story and the actors are terribly endearing, including Sean Bean in a role where he doesn't die. The ending only works by fairy tale logic, but that's a very minor flaw.

"A Story Short" - The Storyteller himself becomes the hero of this episode, which cobbles together a couple of different folktales to make a story about telling stories. It feels a little disjointed at times, is tonally all over the place, and the final gag is pretty terrible. Oddly, it also has few special effects and almost no creatures. However, the performances are excellent, and John Hurt is as wonderful as always. It's really the storytelling itself that gets the spotlight here.

"The Luck Child" - Really, the only good thing about this episode is its monster, the Griffin, one of those really ambitious, full-sized muppet creations that the Creature Shop made into something special. The story is basic hero's journey stuff, and not very interesting. However, the monster really is a charmer, with his sing-song speech (provided by Brian Henson) and silly temperament. If it weren't for him, this episode would be ranked at the bottom of the list. Instead...

"Fearnot" - A boy leaves home to learn about fear, and has various adventures. And the adventures are fun, allowing the creature shop to show off some striking characters, but the none of them are as engaging as the Griffin from "The Luck Child" and frankly the ending here always struck me as very weak. It doesn't help that I've also seen a much better version of this story done by "Faerie Tale Theater" - "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers"

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