The Witches (1990)

Roald Dahl was right. This movie has a bullshit ending.

Anyway, welcome back, readers, for this blog’s final month before we wrap up. Today we resumed Sunday Morning Movies with Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Dahl’s novel The Witches, which, until its final sixty seconds, is a tremendously entertaining and incredibly fun film. It was the last movie that Jim Henson worked on before he passed away, and while nobody really wants to get caught in a debate between two cultural titans like Henson and Dahl, everybody who agreed that this story needed a “happy” ending was as wrong as wrong can be. I was reminded of that episode of Friends where Phoebe realizes that her mother had been switching off movies before they reached their sad endings. Stop this film when the mouse and his grandma go to bed and you’ve got a splendid movie.

A few months ago, I wrote about The Watcher in the Woods and noted that the DVD release includes the original ending. I since joined the Disney Movie Club to grab some otherwise unavailable Blu-rays, and that edition of Watcher even includes the original opening, which was also dumped before it received a wide release. The Witches is presently only available on Blu-ray from Warner’s Archive Collection, with no extras except a trailer. I hope one day somebody releases a version of this with the finale that Dahl wanted.

As though to prove how insular and weird our lives have become over the last two years, there’s actually a remake of this film I’d never heard of! Robert Zemeckis directed it and I never knew of it. It came out last year, and when I mentioned this to our son last night, he said that he’d once seen trailers for it on YouTube. Baffled, I asked whether it has people turned into mice. Yep, same story. Except the new version features Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and the 1990 edition has Anjelica Huston. Wonderfully, the Grand High Witch has chosen a black and purple ensemble, just like Boss Witch in 1970’s Pufnstuf. I choose to believe they’re set in the same universe.

So the kid was completely charmed and thrilled and loved this movie to bits, as he should. I also enjoyed the heck out of it, and really liked the delightful realization that the hero kid and his grandmother have picked the wrong darn hotel to visit at the wrong time. It’s a beautiful one, mind, on a gorgeous Cornwall beach, but they could’ve chosen a different weekend and avoided much unpleasantness. Jim Henson and his team were on fire as always, and Rowan Atkinson, Anne Lambton, and Bill Paterson are terrific in supporting roles. We absolutely loved the great photography and the real sense of danger as the mice scurry around the hotel corridors, desperate not to be seen.

I think the most impressive thing about The Witches is that it doesn’t play it safe at all. The kid’s ten and is made from some pretty stern stuff, but if we’d shown him this movie maybe just four years ago, he’d probably have been a mess! I really like how movies from this period were willing to play hardball with children and were ready to give them nightmares. It’s not only that the Grand High Witch is revolting, it’s just a gleefully mean movie full of people who cannot stand children. Even for a Roald Dahl adaptation, this adult world is remarkably anti-kid. At one point, a witch shoves a baby in its pram toward the cliff, and if you listen carefully, you can hear an entire movie theater full of seven year-olds gasp in horror. It may not be as perfect an adaptation as Matilda would be a few years later, but I was pretty certain by the time this finished that its antagonist, Miss Trunchbull, has purple eyes and scalp rash.

The StoryTeller 1.9 – The Three Ravens

The seventh of the StoryTellers to be produced was the last one to air. It probably showed up in the program’s syndication package in other countries before it was shown in the US. It was paired with the eighth and final MuppeTelevision to make a twelfth and last Jim Henson Hour, but it doesn’t look like this episode ever aired anywhere. A copy of the completed hour is held by The Paley Center for Media, but it’s never been released commercially.

The story of the Three Ravens is possibly better known by the later variant with Swan Children, but this version includes a twist where the curse can be broken if the children’s sister can remain silent for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. It features Jonathan Pryce in a small role as the king, and Miranda Richardson just commanding the screen and being just about the most wicked witch we’ve ever seen in anything, ever. It’s a very fine production, and I enjoyed it a lot.

So that was that for this incarnation of The StoryTeller, but two years after production on the nine episodes with John Hurt wrapped in 1988, the Henson team made four new episodes, starring Michael Gambon as another StoryTeller, which amusingly comes to a syndication-friendly package of 13 half-hours. These were called The StoryTeller: Greek Myths, and first aired across four Saturday evenings on Britain’s Channel Four in December 1990. Maybe if I had known how much I would enjoy the nine Hurt episodes, I’d have splashed out for the full set, but it was only available at a silly price last year. Maybe one day there will be a nice, cleaned-up Blu-ray set of all 13. It’s certainly worth rediscovery.

In Atlanta, you can go visit the StoryTeller’s delightful dog at the Center for Puppetry Arts and learn lots more about Jim Henson’s amazing career and his wonderful work. Tell ’em your pals at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time sent you! They’ll be sure to say “…who?”

The StoryTeller 1.8 – Sapsorrow

The last of the nine StoryTellers to get an American network airing was “Sapsorrow,” and it was packaged together with a MuppeTelevision that guest starred k.d. lang and aired as the ninth Jim Henson Hour on July 30, 1989. I think having lang as a guest then was a curious but delightful choice, since she was still largely unknown at the time. It must have been taped at least a couple of months prior to the release of her fourth album, Absolute Torch and Twang, but since the Hour had been axed in April, it served as a nice little bit of promotion for a record that was getting great critical reviews. Sadly, of course, not very many people tuned in to NBC that Sunday evening, but if they had, they’d have seen some good music and a very entertaining StoryTeller.

“Sapsorrow” is based on an early variant of Cinderella, with wicked sisters and woodland friends, and a much, much creepier little bit of menace that 20th Century tellings of the tale omit: the whole business of the shoe fitting a humble girl without royal blood is actually a clever mirror to how the story began. The girl, Sapsorrow, was a princess in the first place, but fled her life in disguise to avoid a similar, yet nastier, rule about a ring that fit only her finger. Since we saw a fractured fairy tale version of Cinderella on Xena a few weeks ago, I think seeing the tale’s origins made for nice symmetry.

The kid recognized where the story was going, but in keeping with this blog’s longest running “joke,” he didn’t recognize Geoffrey Bayldon, who he has seen dozens of times as the original Crowman and as Catweazle. Joining him as his three daughters, Alison Doody, who had a starring role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that same summer, plays Sapsorrow and is brilliant. Comedy legends Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders play her hideous sisters, and are magnificently repulsive. It was another fine little production and we enjoyed it very much.

The StoryTeller 1.7 – The True Bride

So now it’s July 1989, and a lot has happened at NBC since we saw the sixth StoryTeller as half of the third Jim Henson Hour. The Hour had been axed.

It used to be standard practice at the networks to burn off unwanted and unused episodes of TV shows that they’d paid for in the summer, when nobody was watching anyway. So the fourth Hour had been devoted to a popular Henson production called “Dog City,” which later found a larger audience on home video, and then NBC killed the show. They showed the reworked Hour pilot as the fifth episode the following weekend, and then scheduled episodes six through nine on Sunday nights in July. In a case of “too little, too late,” once upon a time, this would actually have been a reasonable slot for the show, at 8 pm as a lead-in to The Wonderful World of Disney. Unfortunately, the TV world had really changed, and CBS dominated Sunday nights since the days, long past, when families would watch Disney together.

The next time a StoryTeller would air as part of the Jim Henson Hour was in the eighth Hour, paired with a MuppeTelevision with guest star Buster Poindexter. Imagine. It’s 1974 and somebody tells David Johansen that in fifteen years, he’ll be singing big band showtunes with Kermit the Frog. This StoryTeller installment is “The True Bride,” with guests Jane Horrocks and Sean Bean.

It’s fair to say that this one is not as strong as some of the other episodes, but it’s still very entertaining. It features some impressively hideous trolls, and an animatronic lion that’s so charming that Henson decided he’d make a fine co-host for the tops and tails of The Jim Henson Hour. Plus I love the little bits of the script that describe falling in love so perfectly: like little fish swimming up and down your back. It’s a testament to just how good this program is that the weakest one so far is still completely delightful.

The StoryTeller 1.6 – The Soldier and Death

It’s possible that the only time I ever saw anything of The Jim Henson Hour when it was on was April 28, 1989. It was Friday night and I was seventeen years old. I had a driver’s license and I was usually out with my friends on Fridays, but I half-recall seeing some Muppets and a bit of a Storyteller on the TV in my folks’ kitchen, and so I think there must have been a night I didn’t go out (shocking but true, there were occasionally evenings where an obnoxious loudmouth like me could not get a date), but my parents did, because they were freaking always out at parties between 1987-1997, and I had the television on when I cooked myself a Lean Cuisine or something before taking it into the den, where a VCR awaited me, and I could watch some Avengers or Doctor Who on VHS while I ate.

Seventeen year-olds were certainly not the target audience for this program. As I’d mentioned previously, teenagerhood had stolen away my interest in Muppets, so I wasn’t paying attention. If Disney+ were to add this series, which is sadly very, very unlikely, I’d watch all twelve Hours in a single evening, but that wasn’t the case in 1989. Nobody was watching.

So the third Hour featured a MuppeTelevision installment that guest-starred Willard Scott and Jane Pauley from NBC’s Today Show, along with the sixth StoryTeller: “The Soldier and Death.” It’s a magnificent half hour, and if I’d sensibly sat my butt in the kitchen and watched it that night in 1989, I wouldn’t have waited until 2021 to see the rest of this series. It stars Bob Peck as a soldier returning from some far distant war whose kindness earns him the gift of a large sack. Anything he commands to enter the sack – geese, devils, death itself – does as commanded. This has repercussions.

I might have enjoyed this every bit as much as “Hans My Hedgehog.” It was worth a thirty-two year wait, but I hope none of you good readers are silly enough to wait that long. Go get yerselves a copy now.

The StoryTeller 1.5 – The Heartless Giant

A lot can happen in a year. When we left The Storyteller in April 1988, the last of the show’s nine episodes was about to go before the cameras, and Jim Henson was talking with NBC about a weekly anthology program for families. He and his team had been working out lots of ideas over the years and needed financing and a place to showcase them.

Eventually, there would be twelve Jim Henson Hour episodes. Eight of these split the hour between a new thirty-minute show, MuppeTelevision, which featured Kermit and Fozzie and the gang along with guest stars and a bunch of new characters, and either one of the remaining StoryTeller installments or a new one-off. The other four episodes were one-off hour-long stories, one of which was a behind-the-scenes documentary.

The initial version of The Jim Henson Hour‘s pilot, called “First Show,” was taped in July 1988, and it was split between a MuppeTelevision guest-starring Bobby McFerrin and a StoryTeller. This would be reworked, and it eventually aired as the fifth Hour, after the show was cancelled, with different host segments and a different second half.

No more StoryTeller segments were made. Throughout the fall of 1988 and winter of 1989, seven more MuppeTelevision shows were taped, along with Lighthouse Island, Dog City, Living With Dinosaurs, and Monster Maker. These were all assembled with Jim, somewhat awkwardly, serving as the host, and on April 14, 1989, the first Jim Henson Hour premiered. It contained a MuppeTelevision with guest star Louie Anderson, and the ninth and last StoryTeller to be produced: “The Heartless Giant.

(This is why I object to the claim that The StoryTeller was cancelled because of low ratings. It was The Jim Henson Hour that was cancelled because of low ratings; The StoryTeller had wrapped more than a year previously.)

And so “The Heartless Giant,” which Henson directed himself and was said to believe was one of the finest things he ever made, was chosen to bolster the Hour‘s debut outing. Not to second-guess the great man too much, but I don’t think any of us agreed this was anywhere as good as the first four. Our son had very mixed feelings. He thought it was really predictable, knowing that the giant would trick the young prince into releasing him and finding that part very dull. On the other hand, when the camera reveals that a hungry wolf is licking the prince’s face late one night in the woods, it gave him a real shock. (Not that he’d admit to it when pressed.) I thought that Frederick Warder did a terrific job as the giant, but I’m a little less sold on the actors who played the princes.

Sadly, though, the Hour stumbled very badly right out of the gate, setting up the program’s quick cancellation with the lowest numbers of anything on prime time that night. NBC clearly did not have a clue what they were doing. They ran the premiere episode of this on the same evening that they ran the final episode of a low-rated Steven J. Cannell-produced midseason replacement called Unsub. I mean, that’s just Programming 101: if you want butts on seats for a brand new show, you need to build enthusiasm for the whole night, and not pretend the third hour isn’t happening. By the time the third episode of The Jim Henson Hour aired two weeks later, it had two entirely different companion programs, all of which were getting crushed by ABC’s family-oriented sitcoms and CBS’s mighty double-header of Dallas and Falcon Crest. What a mess.

The Storyteller 1.4 – The Luck Child

I was enjoying the heck out of “The Luck Child” even before we got to this absolutely amazing twenty-foot animatronic beast who threatens to eat a forger played by Anthony O’Donnell, who’d play the Sontaran warrior Kaagh in a few episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures twenty-odd years later. This griffin is completely wonderful, a full-sized prop towering over the set and constantly moving. I bet the gang in Henson’s Creature Shop danced a jig when they got the order to build it. Robert Eddison, who would play that ancient knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, plays an equally ancient ferryman here.

It’s a terrific half hour of television, and it looks like, for the second and last time, it did well in the American ratings. It aired on Saturday night, while everything else on NBC was a repeat. That was often the way on April evenings in 1988; the networks would save new episodes of their hit shows for May sweeps. True, The Storyteller got the lowest numbers of NBC’s otherwise repeat-packed lineup, but the other networks didn’t have anything that anybody wanted to watch: conversations with former presidents on ABC, a very young Matthew Perry in Second Chance on Fox, and the action show High Mountain Rangers on CBS.

Meanwhile, around the time this aired, the last of the Storyteller installments to be filmed was going before the cameras in the UK. This would be “The Heartless Giant” and it wouldn’t show up on television for another year. More on that next time.

Hey! This is our 2400th post! We sure do watch a lotta telemabission!

The StoryTeller 1.3 – A Story Short

Tonight’s StoryTeller was another little triumph that we all enjoyed very much. This time, he tells a tale about something that had once happened to him. Many years ago, having won a meal from a skeptical cook by way of the old stone soup scam, the storyteller gets brought before the king, who decides his punishment. Our hero must tell the king an entertaining story every night for a year before he will be freed. All is perfectly well for 364 fine evenings, and then he wakes up on the last day without a tale in mind. Richard Vernon plays the king, and Arthur Hewlett, who was in everything in the 1980s, has a tiny role as well.

So this was tremendously good fun, but unfortunately in the US, it was shown to the smallest audience yet. It aired about three months after the previous NBC special, on Friday, January 22, 1988, where it ranked a very distant third to new episodes of Beauty and the Beast and Mr. Belvedere on the other channels. Rival ABC was not yet at the point where they would completely dominate the evening with family-oriented sitcoms – the TGIF umbrella was about 18 months away – but they already had a fairly solid 8 pm hour. NBC probably knew at this stage that they would have to do something about ABC’s growing family audience, but sadly the dismal performance of this StoryTeller special didn’t seem to make them realize that Jim Henson probably wasn’t going to be the answer to this problem. More on that very soon…

The StoryTeller 1.2 – Fearnot

I’m really enjoying this show. I’ve felt for a long time that I would, and I’m very glad that it’s meeting my expectations.

That said, “Fearnot” probably doesn’t quite meet the lofty heights of the first episode, despite being made by the same writer-director team of Anthony Minghella and Steve Barron. It’s nevertheless a very good story about a young man with far more courage than he knows what to do with, although he could probably stand to trade some of it in for some common sense or cunning. We all enjoyed it very much, and it kept us guessing how, having been sent out on the road with just forty shillings to his name, Fearnot would ever “learn to shudder.” At one memorable point, he meets a hideous lake monster who draws in victims with his beautiful siren-like “daughters,” and charms the beast with the sound of his fiddle.

Unfortunately, while “Hans My Hedgehog” had been a solid success in January 1987, this follow-up special was not. It was shown on Monday, October 26, 1987, in place of the regularly-scheduled sitcom The Hogan Family and ranked third in the ratings opposite MacGyver on ABC and the sitcom Frank’s Place on CBS. In a curious little coincidence, this was actually one of the episodes of MacGyver that we looked at a couple of years ago, “Fire and Ice”. I wonder whether any other two shows that we’ve watched for the blog, other than the Saturday morning live action stuff, was ever originally shown at the same time.

The StoryTeller 1.1 – Hans My Hedghog

Not only did we just see John Hurt’s surprise introduction to Doctor Who over the weekend, but ten days ago, we took our first trip to Atlanta since the pandemic began. There, we visited the Center for Puppetry Arts, which is home to a massive Jim Henson collection. Among many other prizes and treasures, we met the StoryTeller’s dog and looked at the little corner where the strange little misunderstood and largely forgotten failure, The Jim Henson Hour, is spotlighted.

Told y’all I plan these posts out in advance.

If you do a little search for The StoryTeller, you won’t find any sites with deep production information, and you’ll definitely find sites with some factual errors about it. My favorite howler is that The StoryTeller was canceled due to low ratings, which is not even remotely true, but more about that later. The one thing that nobody’s quite nailed down is why this program was made at all. You’ll find several sources talking about how Henson, inspired by a course that his daughter did at college, wanted to produce a deep dig into familiar old tales in their unfamiliar, original context, but that doesn’t explain who greenlit the show and agreed to give our man Henson the money to start making it.

Editing this paragraph with revised information: The first StoryTeller installment was made as a pilot in August, 1986. It aired five months later to great success, and so eight additional episodes were filmed in two blocks: four in August 1987, and four more in March and April 1988. All nine episodes appear to have been in the can three months before they made the initial pilot for The Jim Henson Hour, about which, more at the end of the month.

In America, the first StoryTeller episode, “Hans My Hedgehog,” appeared on Saturday, January 31, 1987, scheduled between new episodes of the hits The Facts of Life and The Golden Girls. It won its timeslot opposite ABC’s comedy Sledge Hammer, which twenty-six people remember, and CBS’s Outlaws, which nobody does. It was the only StoryTeller episode to find a large audience in the US, and it won many awards, including an Emmy later that year for Outstanding Children’s Program.

We thought this was a really entertaining start to the series. “Hans My Hedgehog” features small roles for a few pretty familiar faces from the period, including Abigail Cruttenden as a princess who finds herself promised to become the bride of a strange beast man. The script by Anthony Minghella is downright beautiful. I loved his use of words to evoke music that we can’t quite hear, and it ends with a wonderful moment where our StoryTeller, who becomes part of his narrative when he reveals himself to be an occasional favorite of the royal family, shows the audience a memento that the princess had gifted him.

The video quality of this DVD from 2003 is about what I was expecting, about on par with the Twilight Zones from around the same time, quite faded and smudgy and in need of expensive remastering. The series was made on film but then transferred to video for all of the editing and the really interesting effects. It’s like a neat glimpse at an avenue that the evolution of special effects considered but then decided against, with curious composite shots in a sparse studio in front of overlaid computer visuals, and silhouette animation superimposed over static background shots. The music video for Paul McCartney’s “Pretty Little Head” was also made in 1986 and has a similar look to this. (See comments.)

Happily, our son really enjoyed this. We gave him a crash course in how these old tales were saved from being forgotten, and how some of the stories that we might encounter in these nine episodes might seem a little familiar, but not quite comfortable enough for the series to revel in fracturing. I confess that the tale of this hedgehog and all the promises around him only tickled a very distant little gray cell in my own memory, but it’s not the sort of thing I’m likely to forget now.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

So there was this girl in college. There always is.

Her name was Samantha, and she thought the Madison Avenue advertising frogs were about the funniest things ever created. We spent several months asking each other to lunch by saying “A little something from the grill, Jill?” and responding appropriately. Once she explained it to me, anyway. I had never seen the movie.

When I hit teenagerhood around 1984 and was at my most insufferable, the Muppets were among many, many things I lost interest in, as teenagers often will. So I passed on The Muppets Take Manhattan. I didn’t see this movie for many years and, to be honest, I found it really disappointing when I finally did. Watching it with our son this morning didn’t change my mind. It’s a very mediocre outing for the gang, easily the least of the first three installments. It is punctuated with some incredibly funny moments, as it should be, and our kid howled with laughter several times, but by the end – possibly in part because of that endless end – he was halfway to tuning out.

Focusing on the bright moments for now, there are the advertising frogs, who really are hilarious. There’s Joan Rivers, painting makeup all over Miss Piggy. There’s the narrowed-eyes variant of Miss Piggy, finally losing her temper after several raging incidents of jealousy, going after a mugger on roller skates. In point of fact, Miss Piggy is really the best thing about this movie, and the mugger scene comes to a brilliant climax with one of the funniest moments in any Muppet outing ever, when Gregory Hines attempts to mediate / escalate their argument. If we woke the neighbors roaring over this sequence this morning, we apologize.

When I put the calendar for our blog together, I couldn’t have known that this would come up in the rotation right after Disney+ added 118 episodes of The Muppet Show to their rotation. We’ve watched a few over the last several days – the triumphant and utterly amazing Marty Feldman appearance, the uncut Vincent Prince show with its closing number restored – and Manhattan badly sags after the explosive 27 minutes of lunacy in even the worst of the TV episodes. The movie starts introducing the generation of Muppets I never liked: Rizzo the Rat, the bears, the Muppet Babies. (I swear the voice actors in that cartoon were going out of their way to make every single character sound like nails on a chalkboard!) I wish I liked the human actors, but I don’t.

The Muppets Take Manhattan may be a lackluster movie, but there’s still some Muppet spirit in it. For example, during the closing wedding scene, some doves are released. Our son asked “Where did those birds come from?” and I replied “The Creature Shop.” Wokka-wokka-wokka!