TV That Ruined My Childhood: Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.
Jim Henson shared the darker side of folk tales with audiences in the equally inspired and terrifying series The Storyteller.
Because of an off-color reference to Sesame Street on its movie poster, parent groups began clutching their pearls about Brian Henson’s R-rated The Happytime Murders. If they’d done their homework, they’d have realized the Henson to worry about was his father, Jim!
We’ve covered quite a few of the legendary puppeteer’s achievements: from his family friendly Christmas specials to his extravagant fantasy spectacles such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. We’ve even shared a chuckle with The Muppets and chased down a road tripping Big Bird. Henson delighted generations of children…but he had a darker side. There is certainly adult aspects to his fantasy classics, and his last film, The Witches, was childhood-scarring enough to have earned him a spot on this series already. For all that, it was his series of television specials, The Storyteller, where Henson really brought the nightmare fuel.
The Storyteller (1987-1988)
An old storyteller (John Hurt) and his shaggy, talking dog (Brian Henson) sit in front of the fire as the old man reads from a massive tome of old European folk tales. As the series progressed, the storyteller (now played by Michael Gambon) added in versions of Greek mythology, in the aptly named spin-off season – The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990).
The subject matter of these folk tales are not exactly family friendly. Yes, I know that classically these fables were meant as cautionary tales for kids but…
- Classically we used to give kids toys made with lead and uranium, and does them with Laudanum (morphine) when they cried and cocaine tooth drops when they teethed. Fricking cocaine tooth drops, people. In short, we were really, horrendously bad at figuring out what was appropriate for kids back in the day.
- “Cautionary tales” was code for “scare the bejeesus out of children with made up stuff, so the dummies don’t do something dangerous/taboo.” Many fables and folk tales were designed to terrify. If you think a wicked witch with a taste for kid-fondue lives in the woods, you probably won’t stray too far during playtime.
- Sometimes fairy tales are just plain mean-spirited. Hansel and Gretel is not exactly a story to prevent wandering kids; it’s more an old yarn about getting rid of unwanted offspring because your new wife is a bitch. If anything, it’s a judgement against remarrying. Likewise, I doubt unattended spinning needles were a huge safety concern in ye olde time; I’m pretty sure Sleeping Beauty is just about somebody taking wedding invitation snubs way too seriously.
Henson selects from obscure and authentic old tales, which means most of them are less concerned with cautioning children as over-awing them with crazy banana happenings of dubious moral value. The first story is about a rogue who cheats the devil and death itself, who is condemned to an eternity of wandering the Earth. Another is about thwarted infanticide. Another is about parental abuse and body shaming. The next involves royal incest. The final is about forced servitude, torture, and greed. Luckily a magic lion causes the perpetrator to fall into a bottomless pit. I guess there is a lesson to be learned somewhere in there kiddos!
The Storyteller is not only questionable in its morals, but in its creature design. Now, Jim Henson was a master craftsman and a ingenious at creating unforgettable characters. He also had a surreal sensibility when it came to creating almost-human characters. Just compare Kermit and Piggy to the Gelflings from The Dark Crystal. His Muppets are adorable creatures; his elves and humans are terrifying caricatures. The Storyteller’s menagerie is filled with lifelike and uncanny creations with horrifically exaggerated features:
To even the storyteller himself!
But the worst has to be Henson’s vision of Death itself. The slight and skeletal figure is also terrifyingly child-like. It walks right up to the edge of the uncanny valley before pushing you off, screaming!
A Tale for Another Time.
As an adult, I absolutely adore The Storyteller. Apparently I’m not alone as a series of graphic novels with additional, unproduced episodes from the first season hit the market in 2013, and a collected version of The Storyteller and Greek Tales has been remastered for DVD. In it’s heyday, the series won an Emmy for it’s fantastic production values, visuals and storytelling. It is a TV treasure I re-watch fairly often nowadays…but it was terrifying as all hell as a kid.
The surreal, gauzy filter that suffused the tales, couple with the creature designs made certain episodes of the series feel like waking nightmares. The actors and puppeteers gave everything a slightly off-kilter movement style that adult me recognizes as well-coached players accommodating the difficulties of such labor intensive puppets and prosthetics, but which kid me thought looked like corpses being jigged around by an evil spell. Poor Hans the Hedgehog’s movements were accompanied with fast motion shots that made the tantrum he throws upon being kissed a pants-wetting episode. And that creepy, sad looking figure of death…
All in all, I would recommend Jim Henson’s The Storyteller to everyone. Even kids. Especially kids…but maybe that’s just the mean-spirited fairy tale enthusiast in me!