A many-faceted fairy tale that's for adults, too

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Every story has a moral. It's one of the most appealing aspects of any story because it reminds us how best to live. And never is this clearer than in folk and fairy tales, legends, allegories, and myths.

These story forms are distinctly different from one another, but they all meet in one big fantasy extravaganza called "The 10th Kingdom" on NBC (Sun., Feb. 27, 9-11 p.m. through Mon., March 6).

This 10-hour comic-epic event is meant for adults, as is the lovely "Arabian Nights" (airing in April), which has been politically corrected a tad for contemporary American audiences. But it retains great charm, vitality, and poetry.

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Behind all this fairy-tale telling for grown-ups is producer Robert Halmi Sr., (see profile, Page 13) who has produced popular versions of "Gulliver's Travels," "Moby Dick," "The Odyssey," "Noah's Ark," and "Leprechauns," among others.

Even when critics are not receptive to these expensive films, TV audiences seem to go for them. But then, why not? Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California at Berkeley, says the original folk tales handed down orally from one generation to the next were never meant for children, though certainly children listened to them along with their elders. The stories have been made juvenile by all kinds of writers starting with the Brothers Grimm down to the likes of Walt Disney.

But "the tales are like collective dreams.... They provided an outlet for psychological trauma," Dr. Dundes says.

The Brothers Grimm, of course, collected oral tales early in the 19th century. "The early [collectors] had nationalistic agendas, and after they collected [the tales], they changed them...."

For example, in girl-centered stories where the girls rescue themselves, the Grimm versions had them rescued by males to fit the conventions of the day. In the oral versions of Hansel and Gretel, their own mother sends the children out into the woods - a bad image of German motherhood. So in the Grimm version, the mother is a stepmother.

"Maybe we should call them 'fake'-lore instead of folklore," Dundes says. And TV and movie versions of fairy tales are twice removed from original sources because they are based on the literary versions, he points out.

A collision of two worlds

Indeed, "The 10th Kingdom" combines so many tales from such a variety of cultures, it might make a purist balk. But at least the makers try to address some interesting issues. They begin by returning the stories to adults - albeit in paradisiacal form. Then, too, the protagonist of this tale is a female on a hero's journey, and though she is aided by males, she rescues herself and defeats her nemesis.

The story concerns the collision of two worlds. On one side of the magic mirror are the Nine Kingdoms of fairy stories. On the other is the 10th Kingdom, the real world - our world. The Nine Kingdoms impinge on our world when handsome Prince Wendell (Daniel Lapaine), transformed into a dog, escapes through the magic mirror to New York's Central Park pursued by trolls and a werewolf - who work for the wicked Queen (Dianne Wiest).

Wendell knocks Virginia (Kimberly Williams) off her bike and then follows her to work, where she discovers he is no ordinary golden retriever.

The collision of worlds becomes more complicated as Virginia; her father, Tony (John Larroquette); and her suitor, the werewolf (Wolf) slide through the mirror into the 4th Kingdom, where all kinds of bizarre dangers threaten their quest to return Wendell to the throne.

Played with engaging high spirits and wit by Scott Cohen, Wolf is the single most appealing element in the story. Wolf falls for Virginia, and though he tries to eat her grandmother (a la Little Red Riding Hood), he realizes she's the girl of his dreams and sets about trying to change. One of the best of the early scenes is Wolf's encounter with a psychiatrist, who mistakes him for a patient.

Larroquette as Tony plays the selfish dad with delicious energy, and Wiest as the wicked Queen carries her bright smile and winning irony to elegant heights of villainy. A host of brilliant British actors make even small roles like the Tooth Fairy and Clayface the Goblin witty little cameos.

Screwball approach

The fantasy drama may not appeal to every viewer: After all, many adults feel they have left behind - with their dolls or toy trains - the witches, goblins, werewolves, trolls, elves, fairies, giants, assorted sprites, potions, curses, spells, wishes, magic mirrors on the wall, ghosts, and fantastic heroes.

Then, too, "10th Kingdom" really didn't need to be 10 hours long - the writing thins out in several places. As cute and talented as Ms. Williams is, at certain points she just doesn't have enough to do and consequently must substitute attitude for character development.

But for those who still feel an affinity for these stories, this miniseries has a good, screwball approach to a range of wonderful tales - though it may be too "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" for some viewers.

The moral of the story, as complicated as the labyrinthine plot, involves accepting responsibility for one's life and actions, forgiving a guilty parent, and learning the hard lessons of unselfishness, kindness, and courage. It's these qualities that lead to happily ever after - in all 10 kingdoms.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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