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The Storyteller

Author John Cech
Air Date 6/23/2000

The Storyteller Transcript

If you thought there was a familiar look to last month’s television movie of the Arabian Nights, you’d be right. The dazzling special effects were the work of the Henson studios that were founded by the late Jim Henson and gave us not only the Muppets but one of the truly wonderful series of adaptations of folk tales and myths, “The Storyteller.”

This was one of Jim Henson’s pet projects, though the network that initially backed the program pulled the plug after less than a dozen episodes because, in their view, each of these little gems was becoming too expensive to produce. The shows have been running off and on on HBO, and within the last year, eight of the programs have become available on video.

Each of the fairy tale episodes begins with John Hurt playing a particularly raggle-taggle but extraordinarily gifted storyteller who spins his yarns–about the time he tricked the king’s cook, or the soldier who fools death, or the lucky young man who triumphs over the evil tsar, or the hedgehog boy who is really a prince–to the disbelieving ears of his faithful but sarcastic side-kick, a flea-bitten, talking dog, for whom Jim Henson’s talented son Brian provided the voice.

The stories themselves are fusions of Grimms and other classic European fairy tales. Along with these four stories, there are four retellings of Greek myths–the stories of Perseus and the Gorgon, Daedalus and Icarus, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Orpheus and Eurydice. Here the storyteller is Michael Gambon, of “Singing Detective” fame. To judge by the nuances of detail, it’s clear the stories have been carefully researched and cast with such world-class actors as Derek Jacobi. Nothing has been overlooked, and especially not the story lines, which are based on adaptations by Anthony Minghella who won an Oscar for “The English Patient.”

Henson doesn’t play these stories for the broad, absurd laughs that some of the retellings of folk tales, like Shelley Duvall’s, do–or to sarcastically fracture the tales for the fifth-grade, Mad-magazine devouring mind, like John Scieska’s “Stinky Cheese Man” stories. Henson is respectful of the originals, but he is also well aware of the need for stories to entertain us, to weave us into their spell, to make us laugh, and to make us suspend our skepticism for a few minutes of completely transporting magic. If you’re going to buy any videos this summer for your children, buy these, and you’ll find you’ll be happily and repeatedly watching them, too.

Posted in Television