Family entertainment doesn't have to be all fluff. Though NBC's The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns (Nov. 7, 9-11 p.m., and Nov. 8, 8-10 p.m.) might have been thin enough to shove under a door, given the subject matter, writer Peter Barnes invested a tad more heft into it with a little help from the Bard.
Robert Halmi Sr., who has produced Hallmark Entertainment extravaganzas from "Gulliver's Travels" to "Moby Dick" to "Alice in Wonderland," asked Mr. Barnes to write a screenplay about the little people of Ireland's fairy legends. Barnes has written a couple of books on Irish folklore, so he came equipped with all the right creatures assembled in his imagination.
"There are dozens of little creatures," he says in a telephone interview from London. "I had a wide field of characters to choose from."
Banshees (fairy women), Butter Spirits (creatures who steal butter from country folk), tree souls, and a headless horseman (an executed highwayman) glide through the story. But it's the leprechauns - a species of fairy with a reputation for crankiness and troublemaking - that are meant to engage our sympathies as they battle the far more respectable "trooping fairies," the keepers of nature.
So many books are available about fairies that Barnes had to find a way to shape some of that material, he says. He chose to plot his story around "Romeo and Juliet" (with liberal sprinklings from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"). A fairy princess and a leprechaun prince fall in love against their feuding parents' wishes and run off together, thus escalating the conflict. One fairy, akin to Shakespeare's Tybalt character, gets killed after provoking a fight and killing a leprechaun. (This is especially remarkable since fairies and leprechauns are immortal.)
Meanwhile, an American businessman (Randy Quaid) visits a small village in Ireland (where all these fairies live) to buy up cottages and build a golf course for American millionaires. Naturally he falls for an Irish beauty named Kathleen (Orla Brady) and can't do his company's dirty work after all. And since he saves the leprechaun king's life, he is induced to act as peacemaker when the fairy war breaks out.
The comic tone of the story ensures a happy ending, but the Romeo and Juliet theme still works for Barnes, who presses home a gentle message about the evils of intolerance, prejudice, and pride. He doesn't always manage to weave his two stories together believably - and the human story is by far the less interesting of the two.
Then, too, Randy Quaid is miscast as a comic romantic lead, and his relationship with Kathleen never quite jells. Colm Meaney as the titular head of the leprechauns is too cute by half, but Daniel Betts as his son, Mikey, and Caroline Carver as fairy princess Jessica remind us of what innocence looks like. Whoopi Goldberg plays the Grand Banshee with some style and several of the lesser roles (played by English actors) bring classy wit to the whole show.
Barnes makes a case for fairy stories.
"There is less and less emphasis on the imagination in the schools these days, and more and more substitution of business acumen," he says. "But imagination is tremendously important, especially to children. Because there's more to life than the pound, shilling, and pence - or dollars.
"The imagination can teach greater tolerance for other cultures," Barnes says. "I do believe so many acts of tyranny are perpetrated by people with no imagination and no empathy for others."
A different kind of family treat awaits viewers of Annie (ABC Nov. 7, 7-9 p.m.). The often-revived musical based on the cartoon strip "Little Orphan Annie," by Harold Gray, is perpetually popular with little girls. The 1982 John Huston film had its charms (Carol Burnett, chief among them), but not much critical acclaim. It's about time someone did the story for TV.
Closer to the stage musical than the movie, this "Annie" may not capture the grotesque realities of the Depression-era poor as well as the film did, but its optimistic approach manages to at least feel fresh and lively.
Featuring Kathy Bates as the hysterical Miss Hannigan, Alan Cumming as Rooster, Victor Garber as Daddy Warbucks, Audra McDonald as Grace, and a sweet-faced Alicia Morton as Annie, the cast is as sturdy a set of talents as any viewer could have wished for.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society