Okay, so another week is here and another new post. The thing is, I really don’t have anything planned. I haven’t finished any books to review and I don’t have any topics weighing on my mind right now. So, I’m a bit at loose ends. I know! Let’s check the slush pile!
Okay, so it’s not a slush pile in the traditional journalistic sense. Usually, those are full of unsolicited submissions and manuscripts. This is sort of different. Basically, it’s a pile of fairy tale related DVDs I’ve accumulated from thrift stores and cheap DVD bins at various shops just in case I encounter a slow news day. What does it hold in store for us? A hidden gem? Utter dreck? Or possibly the best of both worlds: an okay film with such fascinating flaws that we can’t really look away? The anticipation is palpable.
Okay, so after looking at our choices, I’ve decided to view and review the 2000 epic NBC miniseries The 10th Kingdom. Now, I’ve actually been warned about this miniseries. Apparently, people don’t think it’s particularly good. It’s also a little over 7 hours long. But how bad can it be? It’s got John Larroquette in it and I think he’s great in The Librarians. Once more into the breach!
(a few days and over seven hours of TV later)
Okay, so where to start? Well, first of all there’s the story. In a faraway magical land, an evil queen escapes from Snow White Memorial Prison. Upon escaping, she turns her stepson Prince Wendell White (grandson of Snow White and prince of the 4th Kingdom) into a dog while turning her own dog into the image of Wendell. Wendell escapes and finds his way through a “travelling mirror” to New York City. The queen then sends three trolls and a fellow inmate named Wolf through the mirror to catch the prince (note: the regular world is apparently a fabled “10th Kingdom” where they’re from). The story is largely about two characters from New York City that these other-worlders encounter, a waitress named Virginia Lewis and her bitter janitor father Tony Lewis. After a series of mishaps, including a modern day restaging of “Little Red Riding Hood” and a change of heart from Wolf, a quartet of heroes comprised of Virginia, Tony, Wolf and Prince (this is what Wendell is called in his dog form) arrive in the fantasy world to stop the queen, return Prince to his true form and find another travelling mirror to get them home and not necessarily in that order.
Along the way, a whole lot of things happen. There’s a trip into an enchanted forest, Tony spends some time in prison, people get turned into gold, someone gets struck with a hair-growing curse, there’s a stay in a sort of “Little Bo Peep” town among many other things. This miniseries seems to move from one strange set piece to another with surprising rapidity. In some ways it feels less like an epic miniseries and more like 10 hours of a TV series that was somehow strung into a makeshift miniseries. The series is filled with bizarre, goofy moments. For example, at one point Wolf’s reaction to the full moon is used very clearly as a parallel to PMS. As far as the concepts being played with in this miniseries, if you’ve partaken in any of the fairy tale mash up projects from the past few years you’ll probably recognize them. In this miniseries, I’ve seen ideas that have been played with in Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Ever After High, The Land of Stories, Sisters Grimm, Fables, and possibly a dozen others. In fact, I could probably make a checklist of the big ones:
An alternate fairy tale world. Check!
Magical characters interacting with the modern world. Check!
Using descendants of famous fairy tale characters. Check!
A romance between the “Big Bad Wolf” character and a Red Riding Hood analogue. Check!
The idea that magic is either costly or addictive. Check!
A heavy focus on characters and situations from the story of “Snow White”. Check and double check!
The interesting thing is that this miniseries probably predated most of the modern examples you could think of. I mean, the earliest is probably Fables which began in 2002. Does that mean that this miniseries started all that? Well, not really. It just means I don’t know of any earlier examples. It’s like how fans of Once Upon a Time (the TV show, not the tabletop game) rave about the twists added to the classic stories while I often feel like I’ve seen those twists somewhere before. There’s always a chance that there’s something earlier. The real question is in how well The 10th Kingdom executes these ideas. So, does it do it well? Well, not really. I’ve found that most modern fairy tale mash-up projects do it better. Maybe because they’re not trying to do all of it at once. Also, the tone of this miniseries is all over the place. One minute they’re talking about how a mother tried to drown her seven-year-old daughter and the next they have singing engagement rings with cartoony faces on them. It’s like one minute they’re trying to be Grimm, the next they’re trying to be . . . well, I don't have an example, but something light and whimsical (it feels wrong to throw shade at Disney again here). In a way, it kind of reflects the way that our modern culture views the fairy tale, unable to decide whether they’re grim and gruesome or cute kiddie fare. This is good for commentary, but not necessarily good for an actual television production. Never mind just how long it is. Long even for one of the “epic miniseries” that NBC was running at the time. The one thing that did impress me is that they did manage to include the very fairy tale concept of kindness and repayment. At one point, Virginia gives an old woman some food and the woman repays her with advice. Another time, Virginia frees some talking birds from their cages and they repay her by telling her how to break a curse. You don't see this often in media adaptations of fairy tales. Sure, movie princesses have animal helpers, but they usually function as comical sidekicks rather than examples of repaying a favor.
This miniseries is hardly good in any objective way that I can see. The concepts and story are just so clunky and the tone is inconsistent. And yet, I found it hard to stop watching. I kept wondering what absurd situation these characters were going to find themselves in next. I think it’s because the actors for the main characters really sold it with their performances. There are times when Scott Cohen’s character of Wolf is a little too goofy and lovable when it would make more sense for him to come across as threatening. Otherwise, they make it work. I wouldn’t exactly suggest this miniseries unless you suddenly find yourself with seven hours of free time you just don’t know how to fill (and even then, there are better options). But still, it was an interesting oddity to finally watch after hearing so much negativity about it.
So, that’s it for this week. If you’ve seen this miniseries, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. And if you’d like to encounter more tales from the $5 DVD bin, let me know in the comments and maybe I’ll be able to engineer another slow news day.