Jim Henson's The Storyteller (DVD)

Jim Henson's The Storyteller (DVD)

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Jim Henson's The Storyteller (DVD)

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None of Jim Henson's beloved puppet projects ever quite achieved the effortless believability of Sesame Street and the original Muppet Show; solemnity and ambition weighed down Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, as well as television projects like The Jim Henson Hour. For all their beautiful design, Henson's most serious works tended to feel slightly artificial and over-choreographed. But even at its most self-conscious, Henson's work was unique, exceptional, and staggeringly intricate. Case in point: the 1987 television series The Storyteller, which became a proving ground for Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The show's nine half-hour episodes, newly available on a single no-frills DVD, showcase what was, at the time, a newfound sophistication in video effects and remote-controlled puppetry. More than 15 years later, the video trickery looks slightly overdone, but the puppets are still remarkable, which shows how far ahead of its time Henson's workshop has always been. In stories adapted from Celtic, Russian, and German myths by screenwriter Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), directed by Henson and a few others, and narrated by a nigh-unrecognizable John Hurt, The Storyteller spins out a series of breathless fairy tales, in which lucky peasants, naïve princes, evil kings, and ill-fated princesses take on curses, devils, trolls, a griffin, a giant, and even fate and death. A stable of British actors–including Miranda Richardson, Gabrielle Anwar, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Jennifer Saunders, and Dawn French–mostly mug for the camera or pose in elaborate costumes, while the real stars of the show, the gibbering and threatening monsters or helpful animals, steal most of the scenes. Hurt, heavily made up as a grizzled old man who looks to be half-monster himself, tells the stories in florid, enthusiastic style, giving them a traditionally baroque feel that matches the images. Meanwhile, his cynical dog, a puppet voiced and operated by Henson's son Brian, comments, criticizes, and otherwise brings things back down to earth. The results lack some of the innocent charm of Henson's best work; the overall tone is grave and ponderous, in spite of Hurt's lively humor, and the individual episodes feel contrived and a little chilly, in spite of all the warm hues and homey interiors. But the actual stories remain as compelling as they must have been hundreds of years ago, and the artistry that brings them to life remains as astounding as ever.

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