I wanted to watch something light. Something fun. Something vaguely stupid. Shelley Duval's Faerie Tale Theatre answered my call.
Best described as a live-action anthology of televised fairy tales, the show devotes each episode to a self-contained story that's introduced by Shelley Duval and which stars an astonishing array of famous (at least at the time) actors. Directors such as Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola got involved, and according to the Wikipedia page, a great deal of attention was given to ensuring each episode had a unique aesthetic – one often based on specific artists and children's book illustrators.
Hello, I'm Shelley Duval, and welcome to my awkward and largely needless introduction.
It all sounds mightily impressive, but (as with most fantasy of the Eighties) it's dated drastically. There's no mistaking Eighties television: the giant hair, the ugly clothes, the drab colours – and I say all this as a survivor of the decade. A lot of Faerie Tale Theatre is just plain unpleasant to look at, even when weighed against my fondness for practical effects in the wake of today's overstuffed CGI fests.
But Faerie Tale Theatre walks a fascinating line between Disneyfication and Grimmification – that is to say, nothing is too saccharine or too dark. It's by infusing the stories with a heavy dose of comedy (including a few adult jokes) that the show finds a somewhat unsteady balance between faithful adaptations of the familiar stories, and a fresh take on well-trod material. There is a quite a "stagey" atmosphere to the proceedings, with a preference for long takes, wide shots and the occasional close-up on what are obviously decked-out soundstages, which bring to mind the pantomimes we saw as children – but considering the show openly identifies itself as a "theatre", it's an impression that works in its favour.
And as it happens, this is my first time seeing Faerie Tale Theatre, which is a remarkable feat considering my dual love for fairy tales and the Eighties. I grew up watching Jim Henson's The Storyteller and playing Roberta Williams's King's Quest series, and yet somehow Faerie Tale Theatre slipped through the cracks of my childhood.
But hey, we're here now. And I have twenty-six episodes of fairy tales set in the Eighties to enjoy!
First up is The Tale of the Frog Prince.
Unsurprisingly the story is treated as a whimsical comedy, with none of the poignancy or strangeness of the original story, in which the spell is broken by the princess throwing the frog across the room in disgust rather than kissing him. With Eric Idle providing the narration, the episode features such things as a princess who looks about the same age as her mother, and a cast who don't see any reason to say their lines when they can shout them across the room.
Because the story is rather slight, the sixty-minute runtime is padded out with a backstory explaining the frog prince's condition. In a conceit borrowed fromSleeping Beauty, a king and queen are so desperate for a child that they consult a witch for magical assistance, promising to make her their future child's godmother. Her spell makes a pregnancy possible, but after the royal couple forget to invite her to their newborn son's Christening, she turns up and lays a curse upon the infant.
As I'm sure you've already gathered, it's a frog.
This allows for the theme of "promise-keeping" to be introduced early on in the episode, which dovetails nicely into the more familiar tale of the spoiled princess who breaks her promise to the helpful frog: refusing to treat him as her honoured guest after he retrieves her golden ball from the well.
In the story's cleverest innovation, the princess's father takes her aside and explains in no uncertain terms that honouring her promise is not only a matter of integrity, but a political necessity.
"Everybody knows his place, from the very top (that's me) down to the bottom (that's Jeff the loony who looks after the donkeys). It's a structure, an order, see? We all know where we are and what we're supposed to do and nobody gets in anybody else's way. Do you think we can get along for five minutes without the people below us? Have you ever made a bed? Do you know how to bake bread? How to cook? How to draw water? Feed cattle? Sow corn? Harvest and guard all night? Well, these people do, and they do it all for everybody else in the structure and it's all based on trust. Now if these people see that you, a king's daughter, can't keep her word to a little frog who helped her out, how long do you think it will be before they realize that not only are you not to be trusted – you're not needed. And once they've figured that out, how long do you think your pretty neck will remain on your lovely shoulders? You are a king's daughter and you will keep your word – a promise is a promise."
Once the princess and the frog are alone together in her bedroom, their animosity turns to romance once the latter kills a scorpion in her bed, leading to a grateful kiss, leading to a transformation, leading to...
...the king bursting in and arresting the human prince for being undressed in the princess's boudoir and the princess getting sent off to boarding school in disgrace (all off-screen). Yeah, it's a bit of a curveball to throw in the episode's final minutes, but it's just another few seconds before the witch appears to the king to convince him the two must be married instead.
Most Astonishingly Unexpected Guest Star: Robin Williams!
Also: Rene Auberjonois!
Most Redundant Line: "Once upon a time, a long, long time ago."
Worst Comedy Bit: Servants smearing shaving cream on King Geoffrey's face even though he's a) clean shaven, b) standing upright, and c) insisting that he's late. As it happens, he never actually gets the shave he totally doesn't need.
Best Line: From the Queen: "I've been busy, I've had a baby."
Best Performance: Terri Garr's flouncy, pouty but generally harmless Princess.
Weirdest Performance: Roberta Maxwell, who seems to be playing Griselda as a velociraptor, complete with squawking noises.
Most Eighties Thing: The Princess combing her hair upwards to make it fluffy.
Most Unexpectedly Funny Thing: The Princess constantly correcting people on how they address her, and they subsequently adapting her emphasis on "Prin-CESS."
Worst Prop: The giant golden plastic ball.
Dumbest Line: (while looking at a giant floating ball) "Is it magical?"
Topped only by the response: "We're not sure."
Sneakiest Adult Joke: While the Princess is changing into her nightgown, she tells the Frog: "turn around you horny toad!"
Best Reaction Shot: When the king finds the prince in his daughter's bedchamber.
Worst Special Effect: Robin Williams's frog mask. They couldn't have managed to infuse just a little personality on this thing?
Most Random Addition: The literal grandfather clock. It's an old guy who shouts out the time at various intervals. Cute visual pun, but it has nothing to do with the actual story.