ball, brothers grimm, castle, christening, Comedy, curse, curses, eric idle, Faerie Tale Theatre, fairy tale, fairy tales, frog, frog prince, funny, funny animal, gold ball, grimm, invitation, maxfield parrish, prince, princes, princess, princesses, rene auberjonois, robin williams, Romance, romantic comedy, shelley duvall, spoiled, tale of the frog prince, talking animal, terri garr, the brothers grimm, van dyke parks, witch
“Oh! A horrid toad!” “Oh! A nasty princess!” – Our princess and titular amphibian upon first meeting
Ah, our very first episode of Faerie Tale Theatre. Where to begin…the beginning, obviously.
The story of the Frog Prince is one of a long line of folktales sharing the concept of an animal bride or bridegroom. The plot of these stories usually goes likes this:
- The protagonist is given an impossible task, must be married before a certain deadline, or just needs something done that they can’t be bothered to do themselves.
- A talking animal appears to offer aid in exchange for marriage. The protagonist agrees, even if they’re not exactly onboard with the concept of bestiality.
- Surprise! The animal was really a gorgeous human under a spell the whole time! The protagonist is rewarded for not letting appearances deceive them and they all live happily ever after.
You’ll find stories with this motif all over the world with the animal in question ranging from cats, dogs and mice to monkeys, wolves, bears, and of course, frogs. The oldest known recording of The Frog Prince comes from a Latin translation of a German tale dating back to the 13th century, though some sources say a version from Scotland was what made its way to the Brothers Grimm’s ears. Some variations, such as “The Well at the World’s End” have the royal amphibian be part of a larger story. In fact, the Brothers Grimm retelling comes with the alternate title of “Iron Henry”, named after a servant that appears in the last few sentences who previously had his heart bound with iron bands so it wouldn’t break over the Prince’s fate (that in and of itself sounds like a great side story, why is this guy always left out of the adaptations?)
The Frog Prince holds an important place in the fairy tale pantheon, no doubt thanks to the iconic image of a beautiful woman kissing a frog in the hopes of finding a handsome prince – something which was a much later addition to the story. The original ending in the Brothers Grimm version does NOT in fact have the princess break the spell with a kiss, but by hurling the frog against the wall in a fit of anger! Later editions made by the Grimms changed it to what we know today; it’s not clear why, though considering the brothers’ penchant for patriarchal rewrites in their later years, it may be to give the moral that women will be rewarded if they are obedient and docile and do everything that’s demanded of them even if it crosses personal boundaries. If you don’t want to give this story a chance on that basis, I completely understand, but what if I were to tell you that in the right hands, The Tale of the Frog Prince is a will-they-won’t-they battle of the sexes with witty banter bordering on raunchy but still fun for the whole family?
Our tale begins with a pair of royals, King Geoffrey (a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards) and Queen Gwyneth, discussing their heart’s greatest desire: creating lasting peace between the economically disparaged classes and doing away with the serfdom-based feudal system –
Nah, they want to have a child. Just checking to see if you were paying attention.
Nothing the couple does to get pregnant seems to work until they pay a visit to Griselda, a magical old crone who gives the queen a fertility potion. She won’t accept payment, but insists that, as the child’s self-appointed fairy godmother, she be invited to the christening. Remember in my Sleeping Beauty review how I mentioned christenings were once a big deal and not getting invited to one was akin to a slap in the face? Keep that mind as we go on.
Nine months later, Gwyneth gives birth to a handsome baby boy and the kingdom rejoices. Plans are made for a lavish christening. But on the big day, Geoffrey notices an important name missing off the guest list – Griselda’s. Gwyneth was put in charge of the list; while she tries to chalk it up to a mere oversight, the way she talks about it makes the slight seem intentional on her part. She complains that ugly old Griselda would bring down the party, which gives the impression that Gwyneth is haughty, vain, superficial, and willing to break a simple promise to someone she considers beneath her even if they’ve helped her out – an interesting parallel to our Princess, considering they both must learn their lesson the hard way.
Unlike most fairy tale characters, Geoffrey is smart enough to know betraying a witch is never a good idea. “A promise is a promise!” he cries out – words to live by in this particular episode. He tries to cancel the party but it’s too late – Griselda storms in, squawking with rage.
So now it’s Kramer’s turn to have someone barge into his home. How ironic.
Not placated by Geoffrey’s wheedling, Griselda zaps the room in slo-mo and vanishes in a puff of smoke. When the air clears, Gwyneth’s horrified to hear a croak from the royal cradle…
Meanwhile in another not-so-far-away kingdom live another king and queen, Ulrich and Beatrice, who have just become the proud parents of a beautiful but spoiled rotten princess. The years go by and her father is trying to marry her off to whatever nice, ignorant prince comes her way; the Princess (who I just realized is never given a name throughout all this) is more interested in snagging a ring from a king so she can be queen straightaway. She’s a terror to her servants and “friends”, always finding something to complain about and forcing them to hang around so she’ll have somebody to admire her. Terri Garr walks that fine line between outrageously demanding shrew and hilarious caricature of such: a Princess Karen if you will. You look forward to seeing her be taken down a peg but she’s the right amount of over-the-top that her constant demands and whining doesn’t grow too tiresome.
On this particular day, the Princess refuses to join her parents entertaining a visiting king and queen until a servant mentions they brought a gift for her. Said royals are Geoffrey and Gwyneth, who are hoping the Princess will show interest in their son Prince Hal – their second son (they don’t like to talk about the first). Hal couldn’t make it to tea, leaving Gwyneth and Geoffrey to play him up to their prospective in-laws.
Now, before I go any further, I have to stop and talk about the dialogue in this episode. It’s really quite clever and humorous with plenty of double-entendres that the adults will catch sooner than the kids – that all stops with Prince Hal, however. He’s a character who is only discussed, never makes an actual appearance within the story, and the way the others talk about him…well…
Geoffrey says Hal is constantly running off with the boys to slay dragons. Ulrich says in his day he was more interested in chasing princesses, while Candy suggests that Hal is just going through a phase. The Princess makes a point of how Hal “spears” his quarry. Even though Geoffrey’s lament is meant to allude to their ill-fated offspring’s current form, the way it’s worded (“If only our first son grew up to be a man“), if you haven’t already guessed, all this adds up to the homophobic punchline that is Prince Hal. He’s obviously meant to be gay, and the characters are either in denial or insulting him using coded language, and it’s not a pleasant scene when you realize this.
Ah, the 80s; if the special effects won’t date you, then your attitude towards the LGBT+ community certainly will.
Anyway, the present for the Princess was once Hal’s christening gift from his fairy godmother, a lovely golden ball. As the ball floats out of the box and around the stupefied guests, Ulrich asks if it’s magic, to which Gwyneth shrugs and replies “We’re not sure.”
After the Princess gets sick of badmouthing her companions, she storms off to play with her new toy by herself. Well, we’ve seen plenty of the Princess, can we finally see the Frog Prince?
This, I am both pleased and terrified to say, is our Frog Prince. Thankfully, this one uncomfortable close-up is as near as we get to that misshapen frozen OH-face; for the rest of the episode he’s shot in full-body and made to look to scale when sharing the scene with average-sized humans. The compositing isn’t too bad for the time, though it’s noticeable whenever he’s standing or sitting on something that moves while he stays in place.
And yes, that is Robin Williams as our amphibious protagonist. I haven’t figured out if it’s really him in the suit or if he dubbed over someone else performing the actions, but considering the expressive body language the Frog presents while taking Robin’s mime training into account, it’s easy to surmise that it’s the former. We may not see his face for some time, but he still has the same wild energy in his vocal delivery that we can expect from the Genie ten years after.
Sparks fly from the moment our Frog and Princess meet. The Frog proves to not only be incredibly intelligent but the very first person to not stand for the Princess’ stuck-up behavior. This scene is almost seven straight minutes of Robin Williams and Terri Garr, one of the greatest comedians of all time and one of the underappreciated comediennes of the silver screen, bantering and making fun of each other, and it’s just as fun as it sounds. The ribbing (heh heh, ribbing) comes to a temporary halt when the Princess loses her ball down the well. She’s so despondent that the Frog stops his teasing and offers to fetch it for her – for a price. He turns down the Princess’ offer of her silk dresses (he won’t need those until he has to pose as a nanny) and her diamond ring (“I might as well put a big sign up for every snake in the county saying “SNAKE FOOD! COME AND GET IT!!”) and makes his counter-offer: to be her friend, have a nice dinner with her at the castle, and sleep on a silk pillow. By all accounts they’re not unreasonable demands, and unlike the Princess’ courtiers, the Frog is someone who wants to willingly spend time with the Princess. It’s not just an easy deal, it’s a subtle push to get the Princess to stop thinking in materialistic terms and consider what makes others happy.
The Princess abhors the thought of her social standing being lowered by amphibian association, however. It’s only upon further reflection that she realizes she can just ditch him once he’s retrieved the ball (“What’s he going to do, storm the castle?” she thinks. Oh, how that thought will come back to haunt her.) Once the Princess agrees to his terms, the Frog performs a quick little ditty about how happy he is to have a new pal and throws in a line about her giving him a kiss which was most definitely not part of the deal. But the Princess just can’t be bothered with the fine details and pushes him in the well. After the Frog endures a long climb back up with the ball in tow, she yoinks it and leaves him high and dry. And that would be the end of it, except the royal family receives word of an unexpected visitor asking to see the Princess during dinner. She plays dumb for as long as she can, though ultimately she’s forced to come clean about the deal she’s made in front of the whole court.
Ulrich takes her aside and when his proselytizing on how beauty and virtue don’t always go hand in hand doesn’t stick, he resorts to one of the hard truths that comes with being in a position of power – one that a good many politicians could stand to remember these days. The people on top like them rely on the rest of kingdom for food and goods, and the ordinary folk trust the king to keep the kingdom safe and in order – but if a princess shows she can’t keep a simple promise she made to a frog, then the common people might question if they’re trustworthy, which would lead to them realizing they don’t need royalty at all, and where would that leave them?
By the way, that caption’s not hyperbole. Ulrich explicitly states that if she can’t do labor, make a good show of being an effective, honest ruler, or just be a decent human being, then the only thing she’s good for is the guillotine. The Princess reluctantly agrees to keep her promise after that lovely father-daughter bonding moment.
Oh, and while this is going on, the Frog meets a French chef who thinks he’s there to be dinner and tries to cook him. I bring this up because by a stroke of coincidence, Rene Aberjoinis, who plays King Ulrich, would later voice a certain French chef in a similar situation:
Luckily for the Frog, a servant clears things up between him and the Chef before he gets served Doc Hopper-style. The Frog makes a great impression on the royal court with his convivial attitude. He spends the evening showing off his many talents, charming everyone except the Princess, who hates not being the center of attention. When the two are finally left alone in her room, she attempts to bribe him to leave the palace, then threatens to throw him out the window (a nod to the original ending, perhaps?) The Frog reminds her that he could always land in the moat, swim right up to her father and tattle on her, so that’s out. He says he’ll leave quietly if she just gives him the kiss, but she only lets him go as far as sleeping on her pillow.
In the middle of the night, the Princess wakes up to find a scorpion (or rather, a scorpion marionette) in her bed about to attack her. The Frog leaps to her rescue with a little bullfighting routine and stabs it with a needle. The Princess is so grateful for his coming to the rescue that she apologizes for her behavior and rewards the Frog with a kiss of her own volition.
The frog changes into a decent-looking – and largely naked – human prince. The prince, who says his name is Robin (I see what they did there) explains the only way to break the curse was to get a kiss from a princess, as is the way of fairy tales. I suppose dinner and getting in bed with her was his way of turning it into a somewhat proper date. The two are worried about being caught together in bed since nobody would believe Robin’s tale, though they’re even more curious as to whether or not more kisses would turn him back…
But before this fairy tale turns R-rated, the noise draws King Ulrich up to the room. Assuming the Princess defenestrated the frog and sneaked a paramour into the castle, Ulrich throws Prince Robin in the dungeon and sends the Princess to a strict boarding school where she’s forced to learn Latin and play hockey (speaking as a hockey fan, the latter’s not such a downside). Luckily the golden ball is more than just a gilded toy; Griselda can communicate through it. Once she clears things up with Ulrich, Robin is set free, the Princess is summoned back, and the two of them are married at once for good measure. Griselda ends her transfrogrifrying ways, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I forgot how fun this first episode is; the story hits all the beats with little in the way of padding and there’s plenty of laughs to go around thanks to the cheeky wordplay and dialogue. I also wouldn’t put it past Robin to run wild at points with his quickfire improv skills. Even the narrator (who shall be revealed soon) gets some great asides that turn this into almost a spoof of the classic fairytale…as if it were told by Monty Python…
The story of the Frog Prince, however, lives and dies on its romantic partners and…I’d say this does well in that regard. Robin and Terri have great comedic chemistry that plays into the push-and-pull rom-com dynamic of their relationship. The original fairytale has some Taming of the Shrew-ish undertones, a bit of which carries over into this outing, but how the happy ending is achieved here dissolves any parallels between them. The Frog Prince ultimately earns the Princess’ love and his freedom not by browbeating the nastiness out of her, but by repeatedly showing her kindness in spite of it. That, in my opinion, is a much stronger message than just “kiss an ugly guy even if you don’t want to because maybe he’s not so bad on the inside”.
All in all, this is a great start to the series. It shows up front exactly what audiences should expect from Faerie Tale Theatre, warts and all, not to mention it’s worth it for Robin Williams being his usual chaotic self.
- The well the Frog and Princess meet at actually has a name which the Princess mentions casually in one scene: Lionsgate Well. Considering the entirety of Faerie Tale Theatre was made by Lionsgate Entertainment, it’s not a stretch to imagine this was the writers’ way of giving it a shout-out.
- How Frog!Robin has a vast vocabulary and knowledge of history and language despite his condition makes sense in hindsight. He probably either received a royal education in spite of his curse or listened in on his brother’s lessons while living as a frog outside the palace.
- There’s an old man with a Father Time vibe about him hanging around the castle randomly stating the time in place of a grandfather clock. I don’t know why I felt like mentioning him, but I thought he was a nice touch.
- The Frog raising the ball out of the well is accompanied by the opening bars of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” aka the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme. Since that music marks the next step in the evolution of apes and men, does that mean frogs in this world will now evolve to become the new dominant life form?
- Blink and you’ll miss it: after the Frog escapes the Chef’s carving knife, he gives him the Italian salute. Only in the 80s could you get away with sticking that in children’s entertainment.
- Smart of them to use the bit of fabric the Frog waves in his scorpion fight to cover up Robin’s sensitive parts when he becomes human again. They could have just given him a princely costume right away except for the fact that the Frog was already naked; in a twisted way, it makes sense for him to be nude when he switches forms. Having him appear in the buff in the Princess’ bed and trying to hide himself when her father shows up adds to the burlesque nature of this episode.
- Terri Garr was nominated for a Cable ACE Award for this episode. She was up against Joan Collins who was also nominated for her performance on Faerie Tale Theatre (which we’ll get to eventually), though they both lost to Ruby Dee’s heartwrenching turn as troubled matriarch Mary Tyrone in the 1982 television adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
- Best line of the episode? “You’re very beautiful in your own bitchy way.” Oh Robin, words can’t express how much we miss you.
Hey, Was That…: Yes, that is Monty Python alum Eric Idle narrating; not only that but he wrote and directed the whole episode as well! Musician, songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks is the castle musician, who, by the by, also did the music for this very episode. In keeping with Shelley Duvall’s Popeye connections throughout the series, he provided the score for that movie as well. Also joining the cast from Popeye is Roberta Maxwell, who doubles as Queen Beatrice and Griselda. Candy Clark of American Graffiti fame plays both Queen Gwynneth and The Princess’ handmaiden Candy. Charlie Dell, aka Emery Potter from The Dukes of Hazzard, makes the first of several appearances throughout the series in minor supporting roles, this time as The Page.
Who’s The Artist?: This episode’s look is inspired by Maxfield Parrish, a favorite illustrator of mine whose work is still recognized today (the movie poster for The Princess Bride draws directly from one of his most famous works, Daybreak). Parrish used dazzling warm colors and idealized landscapes to create a cozy but fantastical and richly detailed atmosphere; how much of that comes through on videotape is up for debate, but the costumes and sets borrow more than a bit from his portfolio. The pierrot-inspired uniforms of the musicians and servants pays homage to The Lantern Bearers, the castle matte paintings are taken right from The Dinky Bird, and everything from the checkered floors, columns and open archways of the palace interiors to King Ulrich himself is straight from Parrish’s book The Knave of Hearts. Also, while brushing up on Parrish, I found these illustrations he did for Hearst’s Magazine. Make what you will of them.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Believe it or not, there aren’t that many straightforward adaptations of The Frog Prince out there to make a comparison to. In my research I found that the story is alluded to more often fully mounted, no doubt because of how much work the writers have to put into building a solid story leading up to that iconic kiss:
- Disney’s The Princess and the Frog plays with the original fairy tale while constructing an entire new story around it.
- There is a made-for-television rom-com simply titled Prince Charming that moves the story to early-2000s New York, but I haven’t seen it.
- There’s also Tales From Muppetland’s The Frog Prince, which is pure Muppet wholesomeness wrapped up in fifty minutes; it comes close in following the same plot points as this episode and even outdoes it in charm thanks in no small part to Jim Henson, though a good portion of the special centers around stopping the witch who cursed the frog from taking over the kingdom. Oh, and the frog in question is also named Robin – yes, this is the special that gave us Kermit’s adorable nephew, as well as that lovable lug Sweetums.
- Finally, there’s Golan-Globus’ Cannon Movie Tales’ version with Aileen Quinn and John Paragon. If I’m being fully honest, this movie is so bizarre that I’d love to review it someday. It’s one of the stranger of the Cannon fairy tale movies, but it’s incredibly fun to watch. In many ways it shows the pitfalls of stretching this simple tale to feature-length and putting it under the constraints of live-action. I mean, not only do they make the frog an actor in full body costume, much like they do in this episode, but they chose keep him human-sized.
So, if you’re looking for a straightforward version of the story, you could do far worse than this episode. It gets by on the strength of its two leads and a heap of smart writing.
Ranking: Since this is the very first Faerie Tale Theatre episode to be reviewed, it gets first place by default.
Not to toy with anyone’s expectations, but expect this prince to remain king of the hill for quite some time.
Join me next time when I look at the Faerie Tale Theatre premiere of Shelley Duvall herself in Rumpelstiltskin.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month while film reviews are posted on the 20th. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones and Gordhan Rajani for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!
See you on September 20th when we head way out west with Fievel as I look at An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.