Monday, March 24, 2014

Television Review: THE 10TH KINGDOM (2000, Herbert Wise & David Carson)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 417 minutes.
Tag-line: "The most magical event of the millennium!"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley (FATHER OF THE BRIDE '91, ACCORDING TO JIM), Scott Cohen (JACOB'S LADDER, GIA), John Larroquette (NIGHT COURT, JFK), Dianne Wiest (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, FOOTLOOSE), Daniel Lapaine (BROKEDOWN PALACE, 54), Ed O'Neill (MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, SPARTAN), Ann-Margret (TOMMY, GRUMPY OLD MEN), Rutger Hauer (BLADE RUNNER, THE HITCHER), Warwick Davis (RETURN OF THE JEDI, WILLOW), Dawnn Lewis (A DIFFERENT WORLD, HANGIN' WITH MR. COOPER), Jeremiah Birkett (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, POLICE ACADEMY: THE SERIES), Robert Hardy (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, WAR & REMEMBRANCE), Cliff Barry (JUST VISITING, GAME OF THRONES), Peter Vaughn (BRAZIL, STRAW DOGS, GAME OF THRONES), Camryn Manheim (THE PRACTICE, MERCURY RISING), and James Cosmo (GAME OF THRONES, TRAINSPOTTING).   Written by Simon Moore (THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS).  Directed by Herbert Wise (I, CLAUDIUS) and David Carson (episodes of NORTHERN EXPOSURE, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION).  Produced by Brian Eastman (JEEVES AND WOOSTER, AGATHA CHRISTIE: POIROT), Robert Halmi Sr. (GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, THE ODYSSEY), and Robert Halmi Jr. (FARSCAPE, LONESOME DOVE).
Best One-liner:  "Suck an elf!"

I've often said that the 80s represented a kind of renaissance for genres like action movies (from DEATH WISH 3 to COMMANDO to DIE HARD), teen movies (from THE BREAKFAST CLUB to HEATHERS to FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH), and dance movies (from FLASHDANCE to SALSA to BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO)– I must now also say that the late 90s and early 00s brought us a renaissance to an oddly specific genre:  "the fantasy miniseries."

This is the result of the two Robert Halmis– a Hungarian father/son, senior/junior producer team.  These guys were like the Golan and Globus of 90s TV, and their company, RHI, has a long and complex history that has, at times, seen them intertwined with entities as diverse as Hallmark, New Line, and the Hal Roach Library.  Between 1996 and 2002, they churned out an outrageous number of miniseries and TV movies with the common thread of fantasy and/or legend:  GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, THE ODYSSEY (directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, an old Cannon resident director)  20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, HARVEY, MERLIN, MOBY DICK, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, NOAH'S ARK, CLEOPATRA, ANIMAL FARM, THE MAGICAL LEGEND OF THE LEPRECHAUNS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, DON QUIXOTE, ARABIAN NIGHTS, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, VOYAGE OF THE UNICORN, THE LAND OF OZ, THE LOST EMPIRE, THE INFINITE WORLDS OF H.G. WELLS, PRINCE CHARMING, SNOW WHITE: THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL, DINOTOPIA, and SNOW QUEEN.  Holy shit!

Most of these were much-hyped, featured hilarious 90s CGI, and brought together a motley contingent of sitcom stars, Shakespearean masters, TV has-beens, well-known character actors, and comedians– an incredible range of leads have included Ted Danson, John Lithgow, Sam Neill, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Vanessa Williams, Mary Steenburgen, George Wendt, John Gielgud, John Leguizamo, Jason London, Natasha Henstridge, Dennis Hopper, Peter O'Toole, Christina Applegate, Bridget Fonda, Billy Zane, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Harry Anderson, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lee, and Leslie Nielsen, with a few (Martin Short, Rutger Hauer, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Mary Steenburgen, Warwick Davis, John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov, Pete Postlethwaite, among others) who appeared in several of these productions  I must also add, at times that list kind of reads like a who's who of "friends and lovers of Ted Danson."

Anyway- to the matter at hand:  THE TENTH KINGDOM, the crown jewel of "the fantasy miniseries" subgenre, and one of the funniest, most quotable, bizarre, and adventurous small screen triumphs of the era. 

Writer Simon Moore crafts an off-kilter, essentially post-modern fairy-tale universe so thorough and detailed that he not only gets away with combining Snow White/Cinderella/Rapunzel/Little Red Riding Hood/Rumplestiltskin/Little Bo Peep et al., but he does so in a way that feels kookily natural.  He reconstructs the fairy-tale dimension as a genuine one ("The Nine Kingdoms," accessible via a looking-glass portal in NYC's Central Park) where not everything ended happily ever after.

He posits that classic storytellers such as the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen were not writing fiction, but instead were inter-dimensional travelers who survived to tell their tales.  The writing is wry and self-aware enough to get away with some of the more outlandish gags, but never smug or "meta" to the point of annoyance, as is often the case with works of this genre.  It's decidedly sincere, too, and invests much energy and intelligence into emotional and character arcs that actually pay off.  I'd say it's nearly Bryan Fuller-ish (DEAD LIKE ME, WONDERFALLS, PUSHING DAISIES) in sensibility and in its use of disaffected working class heroes in a twisted fantasy setting.  Though ostensibly comedic, it tackles family abuse, coming of age, bondage, drugs (the allure of "magic" here has a pull like heroin), and emotional abandonment– just like the original fairy tales!

Rather than give a strict run-down of the plot, I'd like to touch on a few of the key players and moments that make THE TENTH KINGDOM so special:

#1.  Kimberly Williams as Virginia, a New York waitress who's pulled unwittingly into this imbroglio of multi-dimensional fairy-tale drama.  I only knew her from the 90s FATHER OF THE BRIDE remake, but she has the chops and likability to convincingly play a fantasy heroine across a wide breadth of scenarios that sometimes call for a "Princess Leia," a "Laurie Strode," or an "Alice in Wonderland."  Who knew?

She's even got the comedy moxie to pull off the nuttier bits, like when she has to perform a sheep-centric version of Queen's "We Will Rock You" entitled "We Will Shear You" in order to win a shepherdess pageant.  It's part of a remarkably convoluted scenario that wins the Junta Juleil seal of approval.


#2.  John Larroquette.  (I told you I'd finish John Larroquette week!)  As Virginia's father Tony, he's a humble maintenance man who's also swept up in the drama of the Nine Kingdoms; the sort of character who's essentially good-hearted, but who exists in order to make blockheaded decisions and complicate matters for the rest of the characters.
There's the classic magic bean/magic lamp "three wishes" scenario, whereupon our everyman Larroquette uses up the wishes we've always dreamed of, like making your boss and their extended family your slaves


or possessing a refrigerator with a neverending supply of beer! 

This is the role that first won me over to Larroquette (though he'd had a creepy multi-episode arc on THE PRACTICE that I remember enjoying)– and I must admit that his oafish likability is infectious!

#3.  Scott Cohen.

Holy shit– where has the universe been hiding this guy?  As a half-man half wolf named, aptly, "Wolf," he gives one of the most ridiculously fun and committed performances I've ever seen.
Every fantasy quest/fellowship story needs a wild card, and here the occasional wolfman appearance and shifting of loyalty ensures that the essentially heroic "Wolf" keeps the proceedings interesting.
 
The bravado and specificity of his acting choices are incredibly inspired– it's baffling to me why Cohen didn't become a bigger star.  Though he remains active in theater and New York-based television, his relative obscurity is unforgivable.   Hell, even within the context of this one role, he plays raging monster, wounded animal, rubber-faced jokester, seductive loverboy, action hero, and even delivers a monologue in praise of bacon– all with staggering aplomb.

Scott Cohen waxes poetic on the attributes of bacon...
 
 ...to the dismay and loss of appetite of his companions.

Cohen's charisma is undeniable– apparently in the weeks after THE 10TH KINGDOM first aired, over one hundred internet fan club sites spontaneously appeared in his honor; a slightly more impressive feat in the year 2000, though I think it does speak to his striking a chord with the TV-viewer zeitgeist.

#4.  Dianne Wiest.  Or "two-time Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest," according to the promotional materials.  She's playing the Evil Queen here, trying to carry on the legacy of the one who poisoned Snow White.
 
Unlike many Oscar winners who occasionally "slum it" for television's quick cash and short production schedules, Wiest is clearly here to have fun with the role.  And by that, I don't mean making a mockery of the part for cheap laughs– her idea of fun is acting the hell out of it.  She gives the role a real weight; she's not simply evil– more of a morally bankrupt woman trying to execute an incredibly complex plan.  And Wiest lets us in on that.  Even when we're actively rooting against her, we feel the depth of emotion in her triumphs and setbacks, her ecstasies and frustrations.

Also, her top henchman is Rutger Hauer.  He gets his own entry later on, don't worry, but I have to mention here that the Hauer/Wiest chemistry is fantastic.  Clearly, the two of them have decided that their characters have a romantic connection that isn't fleshed out by the script.  This leads to moments like the following, when Rutger respectfully kisses her gloved hand, and afterward Wiest holds the glove wistfully to her own cheek, trying to absorb Rutger's affection by osmosis. 


I wholeheartedly approve.  This is exactly the sort of moment that elevates THE TENTH KINGDOM from "TV movie" to "something worth talking about fifteen years later."

#5.  Daniel Lapaine as Prince Wendell, and the dog, "Prince."

Part of the Evil Queen's plan is to replace Prince Wendell (the monarch-to-be and descendant of Snow White) with a domesticated dog who would be her puppet on the throne.  And I mean that quite literally– through magic she forces the Prince's consciousness into a dog, and the dog's into the Prince.  This calls for Daniel Lapaine to spend 90% of the miniseries in dual roles– the first, a dog in a man's body; and the second, the voiceover of the Prince trapped in a dog's body.  Somehow, all of this works. 

Lapaine really sells it in both roles, and he's aided by an expert canine who is possibly the best animal actor since CAT'S EYE.  And there is something spectacular about seeing the dog and Larroquette drown their sorrows in girl drinks at a Vegas-style bar in one of the touristy parts of the Nine Kingdoms:


#6.  The trolls.  Ed O'Neill "Al Bundies" his way through the role of Relish, the Troll King,  presumably in between David Mamet projects.

The Troll King functions mostly as a secondary antagonist and shares a fair number of scenes with Diane Wiest.  O'Neill probably doesn't want to be here, but he does what's required of him, playing a brutish conquerer and abusive father to his bastard children.

Said children become a recurring source of comic relief, with Three Stooges-style blocking, a shoe fetish that is at first ridiculous

but ultimately sublime,
 
 and an obsession with the Bee Gees, after being introduced to the works of "the Brothers Gibb" during an excursion into Central Park.  On paper it might not appear to be comedy gold, yet the actors (Jeremiah Birkett, Hugh O'Gorman, and Dawnn Lewis) work wonderfully together to make it so.  Also, their catchphrase is "Suck an elf!," a provocative exclamation that's just incomprehensible enough for network television.  Nice work dodging Standards & Practices, guys!

#7.  Rutger Hauer.    Sure, he could've phoned this in (like he did in Hallmark's TV remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), but by gum, he's givin' it his all.  It's like THE HITCHER infiltrated the Disney universe– this is what I'm talkin' about!

Rutger plays "The Huntsman," a modified version of the character from Snow White, though Hauer's version possesses none of the compassion of the man who notably faked Snow White's death.  He wields a magical crossbow whose bolts never stop moving until they strike the heart of a living being.

He's given a monologue to explain how he came into possession of the crossbow, and with lip-quivering, eye-twitching gusto, he makes me yearn for a spin-off movie– a "Huntsman" prequel, if you will.

Also, this screen capture, taken entirely out of context, ought to brighten your day:


#7.  Rutger Hauer appearing furtively behind cutesy things.  I promised I'd follow up on this long ago in my review of THE HITCHER, and now, nearly four years later, here it finally is!

In that review, I wrote about a closeup of an enormous teddy bear, which was slowly lowered to reveal the ominous face of Rutger Hauer.  I also said that it happened again in another film, which is enough to establish it as a recurring motif in Hauer's oeuvre.

Well here it is: in the locale fittingly named "Kissing Town," a heart shaped-balloon is slowly lowered...
to reveal... Rutger Hauer.

Now we know exactly how Rutger reveals himself to his wife on Valentine's Day!  Bonus points to anyone who can find me a clip of Rutger slowly lowering a box of chocolates.

#8.  A rogue's gallery of British character actors.  There's so many, I can't even list them all here, but we've got Peter Vaughn as the nefarious patriarch of the Little Bo Peep-clan,

John Shrapnel as a hardass prison warden (I mean, look at him– his name is John Shrapnel, for Christ's sake!),

and loads of others like William Osborne, Edward Jewesbury, Patrick Marley, Len Collin, Tom Chadbon, Arthur Cox, Robert Hardy, Frank Middlemass, and Mike Edmonds– it's an embarrassment of tea n' crumpety riches.

#9.  Badass Warwick Davis.  Willow beat up on dragon-things and dogs in monster costumes, sure, and Wicket put the hurt on some stormtroopers, but Warwick Davis has never strictly portrayed a badass.   Well, THE TENTH KINGDOM is here to change that.

He plays "Acorn the Dwarf," a convict and fellow traveler who boasts a wicked eye scar and, much to my delight, pops up occasionally throughout the entire series.

#10.  Amazing fairy tale princess revisionism.  Ann-Margret plays the surly and 200-plus-years-old Cinderella,

and is clearly a good sport for doing so, enduring cracks about cosmetic surgery and growling her way through what is probably my favorite cinematic depiction of this iconic figure.

Also, Camryn Manheim shows up as the long-dead Snow White to spiritually guide Virginia,

though essentially she's just Obi-Wan Kenobi and has clearly been renting space in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. This is the sort of thing I can get behind.

#11.  The quotability.  Though lines like "Did you put your finger in that fish?"  "It'll get funnier if we keep doin' it!" "What do you think this is– an elves' underwear party?" and  "Pick any song– just put sheep words to it" may mean nothing to you at this moment, you may soon find yourself amongst the cult of THE TENTH KINGDOM, quoting them from the safety of your own home.  I feel the same way about Noah Baumbach's HIGHBALL.

#12.  It briefly turns into a legal thriller.  This is natural for a miniseries that is at times dallies in subgenres like "prison escape movie," "palace intrigue thriller," "fantasy war movie," "werewolf shocker," "haunted house flick," and "storybook romance," but Kimberly Williams' powdered-wig defense of a wolf before a jury of sheep is the kind of thing that keeps me returning to THE TENTH KINGDOM over the years.


#13.  Recasting the "Rapunzel" tale through the lens of Stephen King's THINNER, whereupon a gypsy curse

creates the ever-growing locks ("I'm going to die of long hair!")

and the resulting depiction of the mangy, matted mop takes a more realistic view of what one's hair would look like if it were twenty feet long and dragged through forest undergrowth.


Also, I forgot to mention that RUTGER HAUER WILL STEP ON YOUR HAIR:



 #14.  Peculiar music choices.  Beating A KNIGHT'S TALE to the punch of anachronistic music in a basically Medieval universe, THE TENTH KINGDOM makes inspired use of the aforementioned "We Will (Shear) You" and the Bee Gee's "Night Fever," as well as even stranger contexts for work like Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (used in a trippy sequence where evil swamp mushroom puppets try to trick our heroes into eating them)

and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," performed convincingly and a cappella by John Larroquette.

#15.  All the background details, from the communist propaganda in dwarf mountain, to the Naked Emperor (from "The Emperor's New Clothes") roaming around the ballroom with a regiment of feather-bearing attendants:

to the casual bureaucracy of the fairy-tale universe:

"Questing Permits  Required"

to this, some strange and pointless backdrop bar game, whereupon


a miniature wolf's head pendulum is used to knock down sheep figurines.  It's head-scratching, absurd, and for some reason I love it.  (...Perhaps I could say that about the entire series!)

Four and a half stars.

–Sean Gill

4 comments:

Mike B. said...

See, now this is why you run the finest film blog around -- not only did you view 400 minutes of this, but you've actually kinda made me want to see it! This is the kind of thing that I usually wouldn't touch in a million years (and I have to say, it's still darn unlikely), but man, I really do want to see that John Larroquette a cappella performance! I wasn't kidding when I said you were great at mining the gems in these things! No real comment here, I just wanted to say that I appreciate the work, as always!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Thank you for the kind words! Heh heh, I realize THE 10TH KINGDOM is kind of a hard sell, but I found a lot of fun (and Larroquette) to be had here.

eden said...

So I own the tenth Kingdom. Somewhere. I bought it when I was getting my hands on anything and everything that featured Scott Cohen. It is a sad strange twist of fate that he is not an a list movie star or on his own good show. He was absolutely star-makingly incredible on a showtime show called Street Time in the early 2000s. I believe it premiered the same year as the wire and is some of the best television I've ever seen. Probably my favorite cop show ever and impossible to track down.

Sean Gill said...

Eden,

Yeah, it is too bad, though at least he appears to still be getting consistent TV work. Never even heard of STREET TIME, but it sounds pretty good!