Jim Henson is the Story Teller

Great TV seems to be a rarity these days. Especially in the realm of high-end fantasy. In times like these (dominated by “reality,” shockers, and wanton crassness) I find it refreshing to revisit older television shows. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1988) is a welcome oddity from the past. Only nine episodes were made, but they are fresh and fun. Four more episodes were made for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990).


Jim Henson gets a lot of credit as the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street (1969-present), but few seem to realize that he was much more than a simple puppeteer. In addition to performing as Kermit the frog, Rowlf the dog, and Dr. Teeth, Jim Henson was a pioneering innovator in the field of modern puppetry, animatronics, and special effects. The Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (which was developed for films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) was responsible for some of the most memorable movie monsters of the past few decades (including The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Babe, The Flintstones, Dr. Doolittle, MirrorMask, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.).

John Hurt (A Man for All Seasons, The Elephant Man, Watership Down, Alien, Hellboy) stars as The Storyteller, a wizened old man who sits in a tatterdemalion chair at the best place by the fire. Brian Henson (Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Monster Maker) performs the voice and puppeteers the role of the Storyteller’s dog. Together in an old and mysterious castle they huddle by the fireside and tell stories from ancient European folklore. The hallmarks of the show are that the tales told by the Storyteller are very obscure and each episode is assured to feature some new makeup, monster, or prosthetic from the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Some familiar faces do make appearances in the stories themselves. Sean Bean (Ronin, Fellowship of the Ring), Bob Peck (Jurassic Park), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder, Sleepy Hollow), Joely Richardson (Event Horizon, 101 Dalmations), Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Bryan Pringle (the butler in Haunted Honeymoon), Robert Eddison (the knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran (Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon from Agatha Christie’s Poirot), and a few others all play roles in these bizarre fables, but the real stars are the innovative special effects.

A high fantasy children’s show about obscure foreign tales with grandiose production qualities featuring spooky and distorted monsters and hideous makeup was doomed to be short-lived from the beginning it would seem. When one of your episodes features a hedgehog monster-man who rides a giant rooster, marries a princess who fears him, and removes his skin every night to hang out with barnyard animals naked you know you don’t have a typical mainstream smash hit on your hands. The stories are dark and unforgivingly strange and cryptic at times. The puppets, animatronics, and makeup and indeed even the tone is sometimes enough to make one uneasy, but after almost a decade of dark 80s films for kids (The Black Cauldron, Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gremlins, Black Hole, Return to Oz, Time Bandits, etc.) I don’t see it as anything the young ‘uns couldn’t have handled.

The two episodes Jim Henson himself directed “The Soldier and Death” and “The Heartless Giant” were probably the best. “The Soldier and Death” I found to be particularly good and actually surprisingly complex..not to mention the great creepy devil puppets and death too. John Hurt must been having the time of his life as the Storyteller. He plays the role with such grizzled vigor and in the episode “A Story Short” he actually becomes the central character in his own narration. The filming is fun and imaginative, featuring many expressionistic touches and collage and silhouette techniques. The puppets are great (perhaps a bit odd at times, but it’s all good). Sea monsters, devils, griffins, giants, wolves, trolls, magical lions, and other creatures speckle the landscape here. Major props to the clever writing as well. The Storyteller does not Disney-fy tragedy or strangeness and keeps the morals relatively ambiguous, favoring just being thought-provoking and entertaining over being clear about morality. It is admirable that a children’s show would respect its audience to the degree The Storyteller does. It does not offer easy answers to anything.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990) features a new narrator. Brian Henson returns as the dog and Michael Gambon (The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Toys, Gosford Park, Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is the new storyteller. This time the tales are not so much more dark as they are more sad and hopeless. This short series does not water down Greek tragedy for a younger audience. At times narrator, Gambon, seems to be delighting in horrifying his dog sidekick with unhappy twists. The monsters are still cool and scary. Medusas and minotaurs galore! Classic Greek myths come to life as you see stories of Perseus, Icarus, Theseus, and Orpheus all rise and fall. Derek Jacobi (Brother Cadfael, Hamlet, Gosford Park) plays Daedalus in the first episode.

Both series are quite unique and unforgettable. The original Storyteller intro might be one of the best TV intros ever (it’s almost reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt). What I really liked about the stories they selected are not only that many were new to me, but that it says something of culture and history. Ancient Greek myths are a completely different beast from early European folklore. The rules and flow are different. We don’t really tell stories the way they did back then. As a master storyteller and master in special effects, Jim Henson was just the man to tackle this idea. Henson really did think outside of the box. Yes, his wonderful, iconic Muppet characters will undoubtedly be loved and cherished for years to come, but he was much more than a puppeteer. Revisit the Storyteller series and while you’re at it, the old Muppet Show too (still arguably one of the finest and cleverest variety shows ever put together). Fraggle Rock? The Muppet Babies? Have at it. And fans of all that Henson did might also be interested in revisiting another short-lived favorite from my childhood: The Jim Henson Hour (1989).

picture references:

ign.com

muppet wiki

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009