(HBO) Let's say – for one reason or another – you've been feeling the urge to watch some old Jim Henson films lately. You've got quite a few options: there are the classic Muppet movies, the serious sci-fi entry Farscape, the trippy and goofy Fraggle Rock, and the high-water-marks of fantasy filmmaking Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. And then there's a TV series you may not remember – The Storyteller.
Those of us who do remember The Storyteller recall that it originally aired back in 1988 on HBO, then made the frankly unbelievable journey to primetime as part of NBC's short-lived The Jim Henson Hour. This was during the Golden Age of Muppetry, before computer graphics took over, when we were all still amazed and enchanted by the practical-effects skill and fanciful design that Henson's team of artists brought to the screen.
The show featured retellings of old European folktales, and was hosted by John Hurt – playing the eponymous storyteller – and his sarcastic dog, voiced by Brian Henson (Labyrinth fans will recognize him as the voice of Hoggle). The writers took care to choose stories that were relatively unknown to Western audiences, giving the adults something new to watch as the kids gobbled up the mysterious settings, fuzzy monsters, and fantastic twists of fate.
The Storyteller was a co-production between the US and UK, and features many great English actors and comedians, including Miranda Richardson (Harry Potter, Blackadder), Joely Richardson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Pirates of the Caribbean), Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter), Jane Horrocks (AbFab), Dawn French (Harry Potter, AbFab), Jennifer Saunders (AbFab, Coraline), and Derek Jacobi (The King's Speech, Doctor Who). Like the Harry Potter series, the stories are written for kids, but the caliber of acting talent that brings them to life is such that any lover of the dramatic arts will find much to appreciate.
The tales are woven in and out of the storyteller's fireside room, with silhouettes appearing on wallpaper and china plates as the stories drift and twist around us. This style of visual collage creates a dreamlike ambience that perfectly captures the way our imaginations give visual form to the aural experience of storytelling.
One of the highlights of the show is the episode “Hans, My Hedgehog,” which tells the tale of a boy born with the features of a hedgehog. He's shunned and abused because no one will accept his prickly appearance, despite the fact that his quills are soft as feathers. As the storyteller intones, he “learned he was strange, and he learned he was ugly, and he learned to be sad, and he learned the name that was given him.” This message about the power of others' words to limit our self-respect is pretty hard to mistake.
Re-watching The Storyteller reminds us of Jim Henson's true legacy: the idea that imagination can set us free from the bonds of political ideology, social conformity, and self-doubt. Anyone who has enjoyed and understood his work will recognize this enduring theme. The Jim Henson Company has spent decades using stories to teach kids that who they are is valuable, and – when it comes down to it – that lesson is non-negotiable.
Why We Like It: great actors, tons of Henson creatures, true sense of wonder, a chance to hear little-known folktales