Oh Jim Henson, you’re one of the few people whose brain I would love to have had a chance to live in for a brief period of time. The colors and musings of your creative imagination must have been something truly wondrous to behold. The various TV shows, movies and stage shows prove only one thing: you were endless creative, artistically adventurous and a true visionary.
Rather than relying upon tried and well-covered ground with stories like Snow White, Rapunzel, and all the rest of the Grimm’s brothers most well-known menagerie, The Storyteller dips into darker, more obscure tales in the Grimm’s oeuvre. Tales like Hans the Hedgehog, Sapsorrow, the Three Ravens and the Soldier and Death explore the even darker terrain of these tales with reoccurring themes of bodily mutilation, greed, Christian iconography, and sexuality. Disney’s Westernized and anemic versions have their charms (and are at their best when tipped over into the crazy psycho-sexual brutality of their villains), but pale in comparison to the ripe, hypnotic and full-blooded approach to the stories taken here. No twist of the original texts appears to have altered (there’s roughly 200+ canonical tales, so figure me if I have this detail wrong), which helps distinguish this TV show about fairy tales from other equally enjoyable ones like the self-aware Faerie Tale Theatre or the revisionist multicultural take of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. This grounds the tales in their European settings and gives them a distinct essence and flavor for each tale.
The commonality between all episodes, aside from John Hurt’s lovingly rascal and playful performance as the Storyteller, is the sheer amount of visual inventiveness and imagination on display. A basic episode, and for argument’s sake let’s use the episode “The Soldier and Death” as our example, features Hurt’s narrator and an anthropomorphic dog talking about something which reminds the storyteller of the fairy tale we are about to witness. Sometimes the story begins before us as a totally separate scene, but more often, it unfolds as a piece of background begins moving – a figure in the window, something in a painting, a transition from one object into another. This free flowing merger between the reality of the storyteller and theater of the fairy tale is quite lovely to behold. If nothing else, it reminds us that our basic myths have a tendency to be spun out of and greatly influenced by our reality.
But back to the myth, obviously there is a soldier and death involved, but there’s also a group of miniature devils who look like pocket-sized versions of the medieval era’s common perceptions on a demonic appearance. Sure, the design of the devils could leave something to be desired, but death looks like a Cabbage Patch Kid that’s been starved, slightly melted and incapable of sleeping for vast periods of time. Shrouded in a black cape and hood, this specter of death looks like no other version I’ve ever seen before. And numerous episodes feature this kind of left-field interpretations of their mythological characters. One of my personal favorites was a river creature that looks like a humanoid catfish merged with a frog and some kind of prehistoric creature from “Fearnot.”
I could go on and on and on all night about how much I adored this show, how each episode was so smart and a wonder to behold. But I think that I have made my case and rambled on and on quite enough to prove these points.