Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre

Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre (1982)
Koch Vision Entertainment
Cast: Shelley Duvall, Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Lee
Extras: Lost Episode, Promos, Storybook, Playing Cards

Although never a major star, actress Shelley Duvall carved a niche for herself throughout the 1970s as a minor icon of the counterculture. Tall and gangly, with large eyes and toothy smile, Duvall's quirky looks alternated between clownish and oddly endearing from role to role, from a brief appearance as one of Woody Allen's flings in "Annie Hall" to a starring turn as Jack Nicholson's tormented wife in "The Shining" and, most significantly, her frequent collaborations with Robert Altman (including Olive Oyl in "Popeye"). Her acting style could best be described as untrained and raw, and she brought a uniquely natural presence to all of her roles that set her apart from Hollywood actresses. In the 1980s, she furthered her extraordinarily unconventional career with what was by far her most ambitious endeavor—and it was not in front of the camera. The childlike, unassuming Duvall turned to producing high-quality children's entertainment for television, and she used her many connections with top Hollywood personalities to help realize her ideas.

Following a life-long love of fairy tales, Duvall approached fledgling cable channel Showtime with the idea for a live-action, prime-time anthology series based on classic fairy tales and starring A-list celebrities. This became the genesis for "Faerie Tale Theatre," which ran off and on for 26 episodes from 1982 to 1987. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the episodes were released on VHS by various companies and ran in syndication on the Disney Channel, achieving a nostalgic cult following among viewers who grew up during this period, and this series played a significant role in my life-long appreciation for these stories.

Each episode begins with a brief introduction by Shelley Duvall and presents a fresh take on a classic fairy tale (mostly from the Brothers Grimm, but there are some from Hans Christian Andersen and other sources), usually with a contemporary sense of humor and a few postmodern twists. The episodes maintain the look of live theatre productions, with costumes and set design inspired by illustrations from children's books. Occasional use of admittedly cheesy 1980s animated effects adds to the charmingly quaint appearance. But "Faerie Tale Theatre" remains to this day a fascinating moment in TV for reasons beyond its visuals and humor. Anthology series have long been a television staple, but few have attracted the wide array of genuine stars that this series pulled in. Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mick Jagger, Christopher Reeve, Liza Minnelli, Alan Arkin, and Billy Crystal are just a few of the names that may astonish newcomers to the series, and they are often the highlights of their respective episodes.

Here is a quick listing of the episodes and who is in them to give you an idea of what we are dealing with:

The Tale of the Frog Prince, starring Robin Williams, Teri Garr, Rene Auberjonois, Candy Clark, and an unrecognizable Michael Richards. Narrated by Eric Idle.

Rumplestiltskin, starring Duvall herself, Ned Beatty, and Herve Villechaize of TV's "Fantasy Island" in the title role.

Rapunzel, starring Jeff Bridges, Gena Rowlands, and in a daring move, Duvall once again in the lead (daring for casting herself against type). Narrated by Roddy McDowall.

The Nightingale, a trippy take on Hans Christian Andersen's story, starring none other than Mick Jagger as a Chinese emperor alongside Barbara Hershey, Edward James Olmos, Mako, Keye Luke, and a flamboyant Bud Cort.

Sleeping Beauty, with Bernadette Peters, Christopher Reeve, Beverly D'Angelo, Carol Kane, and Sally Kellerman.

Jack and the Beanstalk, starring Dennis Christopher, Elliott Gould, Jean Stapleton, and Katherine Helmond.

Little Red Riding Hood, featuring a delicious performance by Malcolm McDowell as the wolf terrorizing then-wife Mary Steenburgen as the titular heroine. John Vernon and Diane Ladd play her parents.

Hansel and Gretel, with Ricky Schroder and Bridgette Andersen venturing into Joan Collins' gingerbread house. Collins truly camps it up in a dual role as both the witch and the children's stepmother.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears, starring Tatum O'Neal, Alex Karras, Hoyt Axton, John Lithgow, and Carole King.

The Princess and the Pea, starring Liza Minnelli, Tom Conti, Beatrice Straight, and Nancy Allen.

Pinocchio, with Paul Reubens (essentially playing the title role as Pee-wee Herman), Carl Reiner, James Coburn, Lainie Kazan, Jim Belushi, and Michael Richards.

Thumbelina, starring Carrie Fisher, William Katt, and Burgess Meredith. Narrated by David Hemmings.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with Vanessa Redgrave and Vincent Price having great fun as the evil queen and her magic mirror. Elizabeth McGovern and Rex Smith, by comparison, are a little underwhelming as Snow White and the prince.

Beauty and the Beast, one of the major standouts of the series. Based directly on Jean Cocteau's 1946 film, this episode features the brilliant Klaus Kinski under elaborate makeup as the Beast and Susan Sarandon as his beauty. Anjelica Huston also appears as one of Sarandon's flighty sisters.

The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers, one of the more obscure stories, is also one of the most delightful. Christopher Lee is well cast as a king who challenges Peter MacNicol to spend three nights in a haunted castle. David Warner and Dana Hill co-star, and Frank Zappa (of all people!) appears as a mute servant in this spooky episode. Narrated by Vincent Price.

The Three Little Pigs, starring Billy Crystal, Jeff Goldblum, Valerie Perrine, Stephen Furst, Fred Willard, and Doris Roberts.

The Snow Queen, with Lee Remick, Melissa Gilbert, Lauren Hutton, and Lance Kerwin.

The Pied Piper of Hamlin, starring Eric Idle.

Cinderella, a lovely rendering starring the adorable Jennifer Beals and Matthew Broderick, and also featuring Jean Stapleton, Eve Arden, and Edie McClurg.

Puss 'n Boots, highlighted by the likes of Ben Vereen, Gregory Hines, Alfre Woodard, and Brock Peters.

The Emperor's New Clothes, starring Dick Shawn, Alan Arkin, and Art Carney. Narrated by Timothy Dalton.

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp, starring Robert Carradine, Valerie Bertinelli, James Earl Jones, and Leonard Nimoy.

The Princess Who Had Never Laughed, with Howie Mandel, Ellen Barkin, Howard Hesseman, and Mary Woronov. Narrated by William Daniels.

Rip Van Winkle, starring Harry Dean Stanton, Ed Begley Jr., Tim Conway, Talia Shire, Roy Dotrice, and Chris Penn.

The Little Mermaid, with Pam Dawber, Brian Dennehy, Karen Black, Treat Williams, and Helen Mirren.

The Dancing Princesses, with Lesley Ann Warren, Peter Weller, and Roy Dotrice.

The star power here is positively outrageous. What is even more unbelievable is the talent Duvall was occasionally able to bring behind the camera. In addition to starring in "The Pied Piper of Hamlin," Monty Python member Eric Idle also wrote and directed "The Tale of the Frog Prince." The magical "Beauty and the Beast" was helmed by French director Roger Vadim, while Francis Ford Coppola took on "Rip Van Winkle." Peter Medak directed five episodes in the series, including "Pinocchio" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Even a young Tim Burton, having directed only one feature film (1985's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure"), was brought in for an episode, "Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp."

Because the A-list names have surely been the driving force behind the series' lasting legacy, it is easy to overlook the actual content of the show. It has aged reasonably well, though it is not without its dated elements. Each episode lasts roughly an hour long, which today seems a bit long for what is ultimately presented onscreen. Half an hour would have surely been a reasonable amount of time to tell these stories, and the episodes do drag in places. For children brought up on today's hyperactive entertainment, the slower, genteel nature of "Faerie Tale Theatre" may be trying (remember the days when children sat still through "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Reading Rainbow"?), but parents may appreciate the more relaxed pacing. It should also be noted that many episodes contain some mild sexual humor, but it is handled discreetly enough that it should fly right over youngsters' heads. It is nowhere near as pronounced as the sometimes ribald humor of the "Shrek" films, but it is enough to put a knowing smile on adults' faces.

Shelley Duvall followed this with other anthology series, including "Tall Tales and Legends," "Nightmare Classics," and "Shelley Duvall's Bedtime Stories," but none of these achieved the acclaim or longevity of "Faerie Tale Theatre." The program just seemed to come at exactly the right time, capturing an innocence and natural sense of wonder that is all but missing from today's ADD and corporatized entertainment. While we can credit many people, both in front of and behind the camera, for their contributions to the series, it is Shelley Duvall's presence that shines through. She is a woman who never seemed to lose her inner child, and her wispy, ever searching disposition haunts every episode. "Faerie Tale Theatre" is as variable and eccentric as its creator, and that is just one reason why it is still so well loved.

"Faerie Tale Theatre" was previously released on DVD by Starmaker II in 2004 without any supplements to speak of. That set is now out of print. Koch Vision Entertainment has now reissued the set with some interesting new features, but first and foremost are the transfers. I own the Starmaker II set (yes, I am a fanboy), and after comparing several episodes from both sets, I have detected some noticeable differences. It must be said straight away that neither is perfect, and both in fact are significantly flawed. As the series was shot on video some 20-plus years ago, we certainly cannot expect crystal clear image quality. Both sets exhibit some expectant softness and inherent video grain. It immediately seems that the transfers for each set were taken from different video masters, as the Koch Vision episodes all open with a title sequence that was later used for syndication (although this opening looks considerably better than the episodes themselves). Colors on the Koch set are much more vibrant, sometimes to the point of oversaturation. A good example is the "Hansel and Gretel" episode. The Starmaker II presentation looks too muted, but the Koch version is much too red, producing unnatural skin tones. The most telling example may be "Pinocchio," which looks about as close to excellent as it can look in the old Starmaker II edition, while the new Koch version displays very unnatural, bleeding colors and much more grain. Contrast also fared much better on the old edition, and the Koch set is riddled with more visible digital artifacting. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. It is difficult to determine if the discrepancy in quality was due to faulty transfers or bad source material, but looking at the Starmaker II set, it is apparent that these episodes could have looked much better than they do on the Koch DVDs.

Audio, fortunately, fares a little better. Koch provides soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround. The 2.0 track is the default setting and, ultimately, the better sounding of the two. There are few signs of hiss or distortion, and the presentation is generally clear and pleasing. The 5.1 track is really not necessary given the nature of this series, and the effect is a little forced. There are no subtitle options.

All 26 episodes are presented in chronological order and spread over seven discs, four episodes apiece for the first six discs and two on the seventh. The last disc also contains the special features, starting with what must be the Holy Grail for "Faerie Tale Theatre" fans, a lost episode come to be known as "Grimm Party." This 53-minute episode was actually submitted to Koch Vision by a fan on a VHS recording. It is basically a look at the greatest moments from the series merged with footage from the series' wrap party (a costume party, appropriately). As Shelley Duvall is getting dressed for the party with help from Teri Garr, she falls and hits her head, drifting off into a dream in which she must defend her series to the Brothers Grimm themselves (Ed Begley Jr. and Richard Libertini), allowing for excerpts from various episodes to play out. At the party, stars such as Howie Mandel, Karen Black, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Reubens give their thoughts on the show. This seems somewhat hastily put together and is of interest mainly to diehard fans, but it is great to finally see what some apparently regarded as just a legend for many years.

Up next is a 25-minute vintage presentation reel. It too features excerpts from the various episodes and is narrated by Duvall. The last feature is five minutes of B-roll promo footage taken from the filming of the "Grimm Party" episode. Here, we see Alfre Woodard and Teri Garr film on-the-spot promos for Showtime at the party and Duvall recording her promos on a set. As with the lost episode, these extras are of greater interest for the show's fans rather than the casual viewer, but they can be fun.

In addition to these supplements, the package comes with a 112-page book that is beautifully illustrated with photos from the series and features brief synopses of each episode, an informative introduction by producer Bridget Terry, and a brief message from Duvall. The final touch is a deck of playing cards displaying, you guessed it, photos from the show. Fittingly, Duvall is the joker.

"Faerie Tale Theatre" is a series that holds a nostalgic place in my heart and the hearts of many children of the 1980s. It is wonderful to see it receive the special attention it has received from Koch Vision in the way of supplemental material. It is only too bad that they were not able to match their elaborate packaging with stronger transfers of the episodes. What is presented is certainly watchable, and for those who do not have the previous Starmaker II set, it is definitely worth picking this up. Those who still have the old set may still want to get Koch edition for its exclusive features, but I suggest hanging on to the old set as well for the marginally superior transfers. The series alone receives my full recommendation for parents and for those who have not lost touch with the child within themselves.