Once upon a time, in a magical decade known as the Nineteen Eighties, a then-modest little cable network called Showtime decided to launch its very first original television series. Although today known best for programs about serial killers, drug-addicted caregivers, and criminal suburban mothers, this was a quainter, more distant era, all but lost to the mists of time, and thus it was pronounced throughout the land that this first production wouldn’t be an edgy tragicomedy at all but rather an anthology series composed of beloved children’s tales known as Faerie Tale Theatre, produced by the actress, Shelley Duvall, who assembled all of her closest Hollywood celebrity friends to appear in modern dramatizations of the most cherished children’s stories of yesteryear.
As a child, I fell in love with Faerie Tale Theatre and watched it whenever I could. Unfortunately, however, my family didn’t have premium cable back then, so I was only able to see whatever episodes were available to rent on video and/or my mom’s friends were able to record off their TV for me, and/or eventually showed up on PBS. And so, while out of the 27 filmed episodes, there are some I watched over and over until I practically wore out the tapes, others I still haven’t seen up to this point.
And now, years later, I’ve decided to finally revisit this cherished series from my childhood, in order, beginning now with the very first episode, The Tale of the Frog Prince, which first aired on September 11, 1982, when I was 1 1/2 years old, and was one of my favorite installments, when I was growing up…
Now, one’s personal reaction to this first episode of Faerie Tale Theatre will rely upon a number of factors:
(a) one’s feelings towards Robin Williams;
(b) one’s ability to enjoy what at the time were cutting-edge special video effects/sets/costumes that now look more dated than old Doctor Who;
(c) one’s ability to cope with a slightly slower pace than we might be used to with children’s programming today
As far as the first, I was a big Robin Williams fan as a kid. I’m a bit less so today, however it’s hard to deny that the man is enormously talented, if often overly muggy when not reined in properly. There are a few moments where his schtick goes a bit too far in this show, where he stops seeming like the frog prince–which is, naturally, the role he plays in this episode–and more just Robin Williams in a frog suit. And while Robin Williams is pretty much always Robin Williams to some extent, that works in some iconic roles such as the extremely and deliberately showbizzy Genie in Disney’s Aladdin in a way that it doesn’t quite here. It makes sense for an all-powerful genie to be a larger-than-life (and even a bit hammy) showman, but the frog…not so much, and he sometimes crosses the line into obnoxiousness. We’re supposed to be on the side of the frog, not the vain princess–played by Teri Garr–but there are a few times here where I sympathized with her desire to throw him out a window. But only slightly.
Other than that, the dated effects and the slower pacing are all part and parcel with early 1980s television, and while I have no idea how a child today, used to flashier, punchier visuals, might react, the modest production values here actually contribute to the tone. There’s something rather charming, ethereal, and out-of-time about the entire thing, as if we’re watching a bunch of famous people getting together to put on a production for children in a small theatre–which I guess is the point. There are a lot of modern, anachronistic humor and attitudes sprinkled throughout the episode, but it is done in such a straightforward manner that it never feels jarring.