Jim Henson's "Storyteller" fantasies turn the television screen into Alice's looking glass, Snow White's magic mirror and the thief of Bagdad's all-seeing eye. They're so seductively imaginative that you can almost feel them pulling you out of your living room and into the bottomless tube.
The first "Storyteller" special, "Hans: My Hedgehog," aired last season. The second, tonight on NBC, is called "Fearnot" after its title character, a lad who has never experienced a good case of the shudders, and so sallies forth to get one. "Storyteller" follows "ALF" at 8:30 on Channel 4.
It's the kind of program that does not separate the men from the boys, or the women from the girls. It has the potential to bring them all together in front of the same TV set for a change.
Cute Muppety elements are few. Henson mingles live actors with awe-inspiring creations from his creature factory, sets them all against surreal storybook backgrounds and frames the tales with sundry annotations by the storyteller himself: actor John Hurt under the proverbial ton of makeup.
Anthony Minghella adapted "Fearnot" from an old German folk tale. Our hero, played with stalwart ingenuousness by Reece Dinsdale, is unable to summon up so much as a goose pimple, no matter how hard the world works at scaring him. A wily Irish tinker (Willie Ross) enlists in the project.
But not even the omnivorous monster who lives at the bottom of a pond (specifically, "a pond by a hedge by a field by a mill by a town") can intimidate Fearnot, who charms the beast with a serenade from his violin. The last we see of the monster, he is heading for Ireland to track down the bird who inspired young Fearnot's soothing tune.
In a definitively foreboding castle lives a demon who arrives through the fireplace in sections, leading him to quote another mythical creature, Ronald Reagan, in "King's Row": "Where's the rest of me?" Soon Fearnot is bowling with a human skull and dodging the demon's sinister assaults yet still fearing not. The answer to his dilemma may lie back home and may have something to do with the angelic maiden Lidia (Gabrielle Anwar), whom he has glimpsed from afar.
Then again, it may not.
Hurt is just the fellow to spin wondrous tales, and director Steve Barron, who did the classic a-ha video "Take on Me," has a happy knack for magic. Rachel Portman's music is one of many production details that seem just right. The level of craftsmanship is tremendously impressive, but the important thing is, one gets so wrapped up in the story that the trappings can be taken for granted.
Henson experimented with this sort of fantasy in his feature-length film "Labyrinth," but that seemed too heavy a dose. Watching it was like being trapped in F.A.O. Schwarz's window at Christmas time. "The Storyteller" is ideal in size, weight and luminance.
For Henson and his marvelous staff of illusionists, "Fearnot" represents yet another winsome triumph. It achieves what Steven Spielberg appears to have been driving at with his ill-fated "Amazing Stories" fiasco, yet without either the pretense or the preciousness that sank that costly ship.
However many months until the next "Storyteller" special, it will seem too long.
'Deep Dark Secrets' What are the deep dark secrets of the NBC movie "Deep Dark Secrets"? That they are scarcely worth knowing doesn't mean the film isn't worth seeing. It is an unexpected visual treat because of Vancouver, where it was shot, and because of Melody Anderson, who stars in it.
Anderson, of whom we have not seen nearly enough on television, is like a Jane Pauley with warmth, a thawed icy blond with a resemblance to Grace Kelly. She isn't just beautiful, though. Her face has character (it's the corners of her mouth, perhaps) and she's compelling on the screen even when she's all but motionless.
This is a lady who cannot get lost in a crowd scene.
In the film, at 9 on Channel 4, Anderson plays Julianne Wakefield, whose husband Michael (James Brolin, looking both wimpy and satanic) has the quintessential mysterious past. It emerges slowly after an auto accident in which it appears he has died. Actually, he is hiding in the barn, and spends most of the movie there.
I always say, if you are going to star James Brolin in a movie, then locking him in the barn is the best policy.
Joe Spano (Goldblum of "Hill Street Blues") arrives at the Wakefields' idyllic country inn looking mighty suspicious. There are missing cases of Chardonnay to explain, and bills for dues from a club of which Mrs. Wakefield is certain her husband was not a member.
The script by Nancy Sackett is a skillful tease, and Robert Lewis directed with admirable respect for the material -- and not one iota more than necessary. He appears to appreciate Anderson's potential as the camera's love interest. She's radiant and fascinating.
Pamela Bellwood and Morgan Stevens hang around as the manager of the inn and a childhood friend of Julianne's. Stevens is losing his soap-hunk's good looks; millions of men would love to have this problem. Anderson isn't the only sight for jaded eyes in the film; Vancouver, as it keeps proving in TV movie after TV movie, photographs magnificently.
The setting for the inn is heavenly. So is the surrounding countryside. TV exposure like this (it's cheaper to film in Canada) must be doing wonders for Canadian tourism. The country is turning into one gigantic, spectacular back lot.
The verdant ambiance helps mitigate the melodramatics of the story. But Sackett wrote it to be not so much a mystery, or the tale of a woman who fell for Mr. Wrong, as a sheltered woman's odyssey from reliance on others to discovery of self. The realization is expressed in hoary cliche's, yet when Anderson says them, they sound like pure wisdom.