One of Jim Henson's finest works is The Storyteller
series, originally airing on HBO in 1987. As with his other non-Muppet creations (Labyrinth
, and The Dark Crystal
), Henson fills the screen with wonderful creatures that have a wisp of a J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy. This definitive collection of 13 stories--9 based on European fables, and 4 slightly grittier takes on Greek myths--deserves to be in TV's pantheon. The series was adapted by Anthony Minghella, who became an Oscar-winning filmmaker a decade later with The English Patient
. Minghella weaves the narration of a storyteller with dialogue from the stories to beguiling effect; the storyteller doesn't simply introduce the tales. The storytelling duties are split with an engaging John Hurt, and a study Michael Gambon for the Greek fables. Both are accompanied by a Muppet dog performed by Henson's son and successor, Brian.
The European tales are wonderful especially since the stories are not well known. "The Luck Child" is a brilliant short about a king bent on destroying a commoner boy, known as the luck child ("the seventh son born of a seventh son on a week with two Fridays"), after a wizard declares the boy will grow up to be king. The fate of the king is one of those hooks that should have the kids smiling for days. "Sapsorrow" is a curious variation on the Cinderella legend. Henson himself directs "Death and the Soldier," a vivid example of how these episodes were so wonderfully complex. A penniless solider (Bob Peck) is given a magical sack and he uses it to full effect, capturing gremlins and greater evils on his way to be king. "A Story Short" is the storyteller's own adventure. He makes a deal with a king to tell a story every day of the year. Yet on the last day, the storyteller's mind is a blank and his fate may lead him to a boiling vat of oil.
By nature, the Greek myth episodes are a bit more mature (ages 8 and older) and downbeat, yet give the audience lasting impressions of oft-quoted tales. In "Perseus and the Gorgon," King Argos locks away his wife when it is foretold his future son will kill him. Soon mother and son (Perseus, fathered by none other than Zeus) are washed ashore and another angry king looks to take away Perseus's mother. How can Perseus win the day? By killing the evil Gorgon whose snake-covered head includes eyes that turn humans into statues. Derek Jacobi stars as the deft Greek designer in "Daedalus and Icarus." The father goes through many hardships, including the famous episode of his son flying too close to the sun. John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) directs the tale of "Theseus and the Minotaur." A young man reunites with his father, King Aegeus, but is cursed by his witch of a stepmother (literally). When Theseus tries to stop the regular sacrifice to the half-bull, half-man Minotaur, a new curse awaits the young prince. The magical musician Orpheus (Art Malik) finds his muse in "Orpheus and Eurydice." Unfortunately, she soon dies and goes to Hades where Orpheus follows, attempting to win her soul from the devil himself. Henson's work is true family entertainment and at only 22 minutes per episode, it's the perfect companion for some fine entertainment around the TV. --Doug Thomas
Running Time: 301 Min.