80s, abandonment, abusive parent, abusive relationships, bargain, blinded, brothers grimm, controlling parent, Faerie Tale Theatre, fairy tale, fairy tale adaptation, fairy tale creatures, fairy tales, fairytale, giambattista basile, gilbert cates, golden hair, grimm, grimms fairy tale, gustav klimt, haircut, let down your hair, lettuce, long hair, magic teardrop, metaphor, mockingbird, munchkins, parsley, persinette, petrosinella, pregnant, prince henry, puppets, radishes, rampion, Rapunzel, Roddy McDowell, scary 80s, shelley duvall, television review, television series, the brothers grimm, the dude, tower, tv, tv review, witch, woman in tower, womanhood
“You’ll be safe up in the tower, Rapunzel. No man can ever touch you.” “But I don’t want to be safe. I want to be free!”
– Our villainess and heroine lay out the theme in the middle of a mother-daughter argument
Ah, back to fairy tales. Hopefully it won’t be anything as nightmarish as Meets Frankenstein.
(looks at schedule)
…aw, crap. It’s worse.
I won’t beat around the bush, this episode is pretty infamous for having some freaky imagery that’s forever burned into the nightmares of kids who’ve watched it. I may have been spared from it in my childhood, but watching it through the eyes of a fully-grown adult doesn’t make it any less disturbing (and that’s before we get to the horrifying realistic show of physical and psychological abuse the titular character endures at the hands of her “mother”). Rapunzel is a fucked-up episode – and kind of a fucked-up story when you stop and think about it.
This wasn’t my favorite fairytale to begin with but I see the appeal in it; a woman with impossibly long, beautiful hair rescued by a dashing prince after being held prisoner by an evil overbearing parental figure oozes classic storybook romance. It wasn’t until I saw Into The Woods for the first time that it really gave me pause. The first act of the show ends with everyone celebrating their hard-earned happily ever after, only for it to come crashing down in the second act as the consequences of their actions catch up to them. Rapunzel is no exception, even though she’s the most innocent character throughout all this. She’s out in a world she’s never known with no social skills, family, friends, or any idea how to cope with change; she’s clearly showing signs of post-partum depression, the prince who fathered her children and got her banished from her home in the first place brushes her off as a nuisance and joins his odious brother in ogling other women, and when she confronts her mother for abusing her all her life, the woman tries to justify her actions and drives her under the feet of an angry giant. All I’m saying is thank God for Tangled rewriting the story to give the main character a chance to actually affect things in her own story and create her happy ending; hell, thank God for the Barbie version of Rapunzel doing that as well – both of them!
Anyway, tales of beautiful women trapped in towers go back as far as ancient Greece with Danaë, mother of Perseus, locked up by her dad so she wouldn’t get knocked up. There’s also the Persian myth of Rudāba, whose lover climbed her hair (sound familiar?) and even the myth of St. Barbara, whose father shut her in a tower to stop her from marrying beneath her station. The earliest version of the Rapunzel story we know, however, comes 178 years before the Brothers Grimm penned their take on it. In “Petrosinella”, a Neopolitan folktale collected by Italian author Giambattista Basile, a mother sells out her daughter (the titular character) to an ogress to save her own life after she’s caught stealing her parsley. Petrosinella is seven years old when she’s taken away from her mother and locked in a tower as opposed to being raised from birth by her captor. The usual bit with the prince showing up and falling in love happens, but this time they make their escape using magical means she picked up from the ogress, ultimately defeating her to earn their happily ever after. This tale was later retold in France as “Persinette”, then ambled on over to Germany in Friedrich Schulz’s fairy tale collection, before finally being picked up and rewritten into the Rapunzel story we know today by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
If there’s a running theme throughout all of them, it’s the futility of trying to keep girls from reaching the inevitable – no, not men, womanhood. The tower is the means in which the parental figures try to keep their daughters innocent and childlike forever instead of letting them flourish and learn out in the world. It never works, obviously, since knowledge and arguably temptation comes in the form of the prince. Whoever’s holding Rapunzel prisoner, be it witch or ogre, is furious that their daughter is “tainted” by the outside world and “ungrateful” for all that they have given her to keep her happy (barring the one thing she does want, real freedom). It’s an ugly but honest reflection of how society views girls through the Madonna-Whore dichotomy; if they can’t be sweet and pure forever, then they’re sullied and to blame for the mishaps they face when trying to grow up, things they should have been able to endure if the parents in question had helped them to understand instead of smothering them out of their own selfishness. Rapunzel does get her wish for freedom, but at the cost of being cast out of her childhood home – it was an entrapment, yes, but also the only world she’s ever known up until then; though ultimately the power of love comes through because fairy tales (at least in anything that isn’t Into The Woods).
So knowing all this, how well does Faerie Tale Theatre tell the story of Rapunzel?
Well, you already read this far…
In a far away town live a poor but happy candle-maker named Claude and his wife Marie (Jeff Bridges and Shelley Duvall) who are expecting their first child after many years of wishing and waiting for one. Claude already shows he’s good dad material by promising to teach his trade to his new kid regardless of what gender they are.
That night, Marie wakes Claude and tells him she’s got the munchies something fierce. Claude offers her a cucumber –
– but what Marie really wants is a “rapun”, a particular kind of radish with blue leaves. Even though there’s nothing like that in the house, she continues to give Claude grief over it and how good they are.
But it turns out there’s a reason for Marie’s unusually specific pregnancy cravings…
Now this is a fascinating turn that I’ve never seen in any other adaptation, the Witch enchanting the unsuspecting mother and luring the father into a trap so she can claim their child as her own. It makes her a far more sinister, manipulative figure rather than just a wronged woman going over the line in demanding retribution – and this is only the second or third worst thing she does in this episode.
Marie points out the garden next door has those special radishes growing there, but Claude is a bit iffy on ringing the bell and politely asking for some due to the rumors that the woman who lives there is a witch. He’s not wrong, though Marie suggests that she’s just an ordinary if a bit eccentric woman; sound reasoning in any other scenario. Finally, Marie tells him to just go steal some because she’ll die without them. Claude sneaks his way into the garden, snatches up some radishes and escapes with Witchie-Poo seemingly none the wiser. Marie eats them all in a number of, ahem, “creative” ways, and goes to sleep satisfied.
Can anyone please calmly and rationally explain to me what in the Jim Henson fever dream fuck was that?! I guess this is an effect of the craving spell the Witch cast on Marie, but after enduring a nightmare like that I’d never want to see a radish again let alone eat one. Why is the radish eating other radishes? Is Marie supposed to be the radish? Is she supposed to be the non-sentient radish and the cannibal radish is her curse eating her alive?
Anyway, Marie wakes up hungry for more radishes and starts browbeating Claude into stealing some more. I get this is probably the curse talking, but some of the stuff she says is pretty nasty even for her. I say Claude should just tell her snack on something else until he can get them at the market tomorrow. Claude reluctantly gets out of bed and goes over the garden wall again – only this time, he’s “caught” in the act.
Meet the Witch, played by a conniving Gena Rowlands. I’m not gonna lie, when I first saw this episode, I thought she would be the best thing about it. She’s equal parts charming and dangerously fierce; her look is great too, even though I’m not crazy about the humongous blonde 80s perm (she puts her hair in a bun with all these swirly curls pinned up in one scene that I think looks much nicer on her). Her flowing colorful robes and sparkling black cape gives her flair and an extra ounce of menace, making her look even more looming and powerful. Personality-wise she’s a bit of a mess. She harbors a fierce mistrust of men to the point where I almost want to give her a hug and say “Oh honey, what bastard hurt you?” Were it not for the fact that we learn she’s manipulative, abusive, spiteful, and violently misandrist, I would totally be onboard with a story about this powerful, flamboyant and possibly queer-coded witch living her best life raising a kid as a single mother.
The Witch pleasantly toys with Claude before threatening to cut off his fingers and Marie’s for the theft of her radishes, but then “suddenly” changes her tune when he tells her they’re having a baby. She pretends to be all charm and sweetness and once Claude makes the mistake of saying he’ll give her anything if she lets him go, she corners him into promising her the girl once it’s born – of course the Witch knows it’s a girl – in exchange for what he stole. She insists she’ll raise his daughter far better than Claude ever could: “A son, perhaps, but not a daughter”, she snidely spits at him. The Witch kicks Claude out and he reveals his deal to a horrified Marie, whereupon she loses her appetite so badly that she develops a deathly allergy to radishes.
As the months go by, Claude and Marie take every possible precaution to keep the Witch from entering their home once the baby is born; crucifixes all over, garlic and wolfsbane strung on the walls, cutting off their fireplace from the Floo Network, and so on. By the time they receive their little bundle of joy, they’re confident that their house is totally witch-proof.
Claude reaches for his gun, but the Witch freezes him and Marie in place, plucks the infant from her arms and disappears to parts unknown. She names the girl Rapunzel after her radishes and raises her in a tall tower deep within an enchanted forest.
By the way, this is the halfway point of the episode. We’ve spent so much time with Rapunzel’s parents, who do not reappear after this point, and all their niffle-naffling with their pregnancy and radish woes, that we are half-done with this story.
Brace yourselves, folks, it only goes downhill from here.
Now, I was pretty harsh on Shelley Duvall as Rapunzel when I made my list of ten favorite Faerie Tale Theatre episodes back in 2016. I hadn’t fully developed my writing style or how to give a proper critique, and when I said she didn’t fit the part, it came across as a petty insult, which people have rightfully called me out on in the comments. For that, I most sincerely apologize. Regardless of my intent, it was wrong of me to disparage an actress based on her looks. I promise I will do better from now on.
That being said, while it doesn’t excuse my past statements, part of why I didn’t like Duvall’s Rapunzel then was because I compared her to Tangled’s Rapunzel, who I absolutely love. Disney took what could have been the most passive Princess in the canon since Sleeping Beauty and made her one of the most proactive, running around exploring, taming horses, whipping that hair like Indiana Jones and overcoming her narcissist gaslighting mother figure to find her own destiny. Duvall’s Rapunzel is not Tangled’s Rapunzel…but she’s not supposed to be. Duvall’s Rapunzel is a victim, a tragic figure who has her spirit slowly crushed to the point where she can’t even raise her hands to defend herself, one who forces herself to smile even as she’s deeply miserable. And as far as that manner of portrayal goes, she’s all right.
Rapunzel wakes up one morning to find her mother sealing the only entrance to her tower with a bunch of strange creatures, one of which seems to be made up of nothing but a giant nose with arms and legs – hey wait a minute!
Rapunzel, in a rarity from other adaptations, argues with the Witch over this decision. She makes some great points against the Witch’s rebuttals, some of which are startlingly familiar to the things Mother Gothel says to denigrate Rapunzel in Tangled; things like how she understands nothing about the world and how she’s the only one she can trust. It’s not just isolating Rapunzel in a tower that’s bad, it’s isolating Rapunzel with no one else but herself, ensuring she’ll have no one to turn to and no way to form her own opinions or life outside of hers.
The Witch won’t back down, even when Rapunzel tries to bargain with her. Like many an abuse victim, Rapunzel’s made to feel she’s the one who did something wrong to have her mother react like this. The Witch returns the following day and tells Rapunzel to let down her long hair so she can climb up and visit. Rapunzel understandably refuses – at which point the Witch stops providing Rapunzel with food and water. The days crawl by as Rapunzel repeatedly refuses to let up the Witch and she slowly, painfully, starts to starve to death.
You want to know what’s even worse? Near the end of the episode, we see the Witch can teleport herself at anytime. All this was just her purposefully biding her time until her daughter either starved or gave in to her abuse, and it’s part of why I find this episode difficult to watch. This is where I go from loving to hate The Witch like I would a fun Disney villain to wanting her to die in as many excruciating ways as possible. Despite her insistence that she could be a better parent to Rapunzel than Marie and Claude combined, the Witch views Rapunzel less as a daughter and human being than, at best, a pet to pamper and play with, and at worst, someone to have beneath them. And you know what? I get the reasoning behind this, to show kids how cruel parents can be, that it’s right to escape an abusive situation no matter how much the abuser “loves” you, and that they should do better when they grow to become parents themselves. That’s an admirable lesson – or it would be if the people behind this episode really bothered to give it any thought. Instead it’s unpleasant cruelty for the sake of unpleasant cruelty and to get to the part of the Rapunzel story everyone remembers. Sure, Raps tries to leave the tower later on, but she gets discovered by the Witch who takes it out on her in the worst way, which, in doing so, teaches that any attempts at escaping your abuser will always end in failure and punishment for you and anyone involved. How nice.
Anyway, Rapunzel gives in and lets down her locks so she won’t die. Her will isn’t completely gone yet as she does take the first opportunity to stand up to the Witch for her unfair imprisonment. The Witch then slaps her, says she’s not sorry for doing so, calls Rapunzel spoiled for not being happy with her gilded tower and isolation, and pulls the whole “I’m not good enough, huh? Would you want anyone to take you away from me?” guilt trip until Rapunzel is worn down. But to maintain the illusion of a loving, caring mother, the Witch summons a “companion” for her in the form of a parrot that can repeat her songs and conversations. I know it may seem like I’m skipping a lot, but it’s all for trying to speed through another scene of Rapunzel going through the cycle of abuse.
One day years later, a handsome Prince called Henry gets lost in the forest. Rapunzel’s singing leads him to her tower. He watches the Witch do the “let down your hair” routine and gets the idea to try it himself so he can meet the mysterious singer. Thankfully Rapunzel isn’t that naïve for a highly-sheltered woman and wisely checks who’s calling first. Since she’s never met a man before and only has her mother’s less than stellar opinions to go by, she asks him “What is a man?”
Henry gives his word that he isn’t a lying cheating stealing cad and Rapunzel cautiously lets him up. Oh, and since Duvall plays Rapunzel, you’ll never guess who plays Prince Henry.
All right, I don’t hate the idea of double-casting Rapunzel and her prince with her parents (and I’m sure whoever was in charge of this episode’s budget did a huge sigh of relief seeing how there were only three main actors in the cast). Bridges certainly looks charming enough. The problem is since there’s about fifteen minutes left, that leaves Henry and Rapunzel very little time to develop a meaningful relationship. They instead go for a love at first sight thing, which can be done right if written carefully, but here it makes Henry come off as really creepy. The first thing he says when he sees Rapunzel up close in person is, “Beautiful…I may be rude but I think I love you…don’t you feel anything? I mean when I came in, didn’t you feel…?”
But Rapunzel ignores those instincts and says she feels “that good kind of scared” which must mean she’s in love too, and they start kissing. Then the Witch calls to Rapunzel from below. The Witch tells her that she’s smelled a man close by and asks her if she’s seen him so she can turn his brains into soup. Rapunzel lies for the first time in her life and sends her on her way. Henry wants to talk to the Witch to show he’s not a bad guy but Rapunzel knows that’d never work. The best they can hope for if they want to get married (less than two minutes together and they get themselves engaged, not exaggerating) is to elope. Henry says they can cut Rapunzel’s hair and escape right away, but the mere thought appalls her; years of the Witch’s gaslighting has gotten it into her head that the day she puts scissors to her tresses will be the day her life is ruined. Though Henry insists not all haircuts are that damaging, he respects her enough that he tosses around other options, good on him. Unfortunately, Rapunzel chooses the one that’s longest to complete and the easiest to get caught doing, weaving a ladder out of silk skeins that Henry will bring every night after the Witch’s visits.
Now it’s at this point of the usual Rapunzel story that one of two things happen which results in the Witch discovering her escape plans:
- Rapunzel cluelessly asks the Witch why it takes so much longer to climb up than the Prince (insert facepalm here), or –
- Rapunzel makes an offhand comment about how her dresses seem tighter than usual – and the Witch susses out that Rapunzel is pregnant.
What the episode does…kind of borrows from both, as you’ll soon see. Rapunzel arouses the Witch’s suspicions one day by almost saying she’s lighter than Henry. The Witch begins grilling Rapunzel as to whether or not she’s seen that man trekking through the woods. And it’s about this time the parrot speaks up. Yeah, remember the parrot? He’s the one who spills the tea by repeating Henry’s conversation with Rapunzel. The Witch goes berserk, tears the room apart until she finds the rope ladder, then cuts off Rapunzel’s hair over her begging and tears.
The Witch teleports Rapunzel to a desert and abandons her there, ensuring she’ll never see her prince again. When Henry returns to the tower, the Witch is there to surprise him. She pushes him off the ledge and he hits his head on a log and…starts bleeding heavily from his eyes?
Before you say The Witch cast a spell on him, all her previous spells were accompanied by a freeze frame, stock sound effects, and green jizz shooting from her eyes, none of which happens when she casts him out the window. How could they so easily misconstrue how the Prince loses his sight? Either he falls into some briars, the Witch scratches his eyes out or she blinds him with magic. You can’t just go sightless from banging your head against a tree!
Okay, maybe you can.
The Prince survives on roots and berries as he blindly searches the woods for Rapunzel. He eventually finds her in the desert – you know, the Sahara Desert right next to the enchanted forest? – chilling out in a makeshift tent with her babies. Yes, Rapunzel was pregnant when the Witch kicked her out. The narrator says they were “born from love” like it was some kind of immaculate conception, but we all know the truth. At some point or another Henry taught Rapunzel the finer points of love between a man and a woman, and this means you’ll have to live with the mental image of Shelley Duvall and Jeff Bridges getting it on.
Rapunzel and Henry’s reunion is bittersweet as he can’t see her or their children. Then, as Rapunzel weeps over him, a single animated magic teardrop veeeeeerrrryyyy slllloooooowwllllllyyyyy falls from her eye, past a lingering shot of her cleavage, and into the prince’s oculars, which instantly cures him. Okay, I don’t want to keep comparing this episode to Tangled, but in that movie, Rapunzel having magic healing tears makes sense because she was born with healing powers. In other versions, the ordinary tears she cries washes out the splinters that blinded her prince. But here it’s just deus ex lacrimosa, no explanation given as to what makes this tear so special.
Anyway, Henry finally meets his children (whom the narrator creepily refers to as “his heirs”), and he takes the whole family back to his kingdom. Rapunzel and her parents are reunited, not that we get to see it (I think it’s well-established that this show does not have the budget for split-screen), and everyone lives happily ever after.
Oh, and the monstrous child-abusing murder-attempting Witch died offscreen from heart disease. No stranding herself in the tower and slowly starving to death, no rapidly aging like Donovan in Last Crusade while falling from said tower; no, just “a hardening of the heart”. A massive disappointment, but slightly more tolerable if you imagine her suddenly dropping from cardiac arrest like a Tony Goldmark character.
I don’t think I need to tell you that I’m not a fan of this episode. There’s plenty there I want to enjoy, like the actors and the overall look – even if the juxtaposition of great sets and costumes against shoddy early 80s special effects make this outing appear both highly expensive and incredibly cheap. That I could easily overlook if it weren’t for the terrible pacing and drawn out scenes of the Witch realistically abusing Rapunzel. Based on my memories, even the lesser episodes of Faerie Tale Theatre are at least a little fun. Rapunzel, however, is not a fun episode in the slightest. I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting this for a very good reason; it’s a hell of a slog to get through with little to show for it.
Then, something happened while doing my research that painted this episode in a bit of a different light. I rediscovered Shelly Duvall’s Hollywood Reporter interview she did in February. Now for those of you who don’t know, Shelley Duvall has had a long and varied career, though she was never as respected as the more mainstream silver screen beauties. Depending on who you asked, her looks were described as “unconventional”, “flowery” or if certain online reviewers were being particularly cruel, “wet haddock”. Duvall’s characters were independent, quirky, occasionally troubled, often childlike extensions of herself. She was rarely seen after her sudden retreat into retirement until sensationalist talk show host and all-over shitty person Dr. Phil invited her on to his program in 2016. The interview he conducted, however, was mainly an excuse to exploit her and her mental illnesses. The backlash was tremendous, and the humiliation she suffered was enough to drive herself out of the public eye for good…almost. In early January, a reporter found her living in a small town in Texas and she allowed him to interview her. While it’s as far from the luxury and grandeur of Hollywood as you can get, she’s happy and seems to be handling herself far better than Dr. Phil would have you believe. The locals have embraced her as one of their own, caring for her like a family would a doting eccentric aunt. Reading that I realized, in a way, her life story kind of parallels Rapunzel’s – she was raised to fit a certain youthful image, was callously cast out for not measuring up to it, but found happiness on her own with people far less likely to abuse her for their selfishness. It got me to appreciate this episode far more than I would have had I started these reviews earlier. Does that mean I like it now? Of course not. Do I hate it? Well, it’ll never make it into my top ten or even my top twenty, let’s leave it at that.
- In the fairy tale this is based on, the “rapun” that was stolen from the witch’s garden is actually “rampion” aka “rapunzel”, hence the heroine’s real namesake. Depending on which version you’re reading, rampion is either a kind of lettuce or parsley. Terrifying puppetry aside, I have no problem with it being changed to radishes because parsley is disgusting.
- The little people who the Witch has seal up Rapunzel’s tower (George Rossitto, Phil and Sal Fondacaro) are referred to in the credits as “The Munchkins”. I don’t know whether to be shocked or to call up MGM’s lawyers.
- This episode features a synth version of the end credits music from Tale of the Frog Prince; in keeping with the rest of the episode, it’s not very good.
- When Rapunzel is born, Claude rocks her to sleep singing “Mockingbird”. When we see the Witch raising Rapunzel, she’s singing that same lullaby to her. It’s a subtle way of showing she’s supplanted her real family and it just gives me the heebie-jeebies.
- The one special effect I like? The Witch’s eyes briefly appearing on a scarecrow as she spies on Claude in the garden. That’s kind of cool.
- Jeff Bridges is one of the very few actors who’s appeared in Faerie Tale Theatre that I had the good fortune to meet in person. It was at a signing of his music album little over ten years ago; he picked up on me having a pretty bad day up to that point and he took the time to cheer me up when he didn’t have to, proving all the behind the scenes stories of him being a nice guy in real life are true. As of writing this, he’s thankfully in remission from cancer and recovered from COVID. Once again, the Dude abides.
Hey, Was That…: That’s Roddy McDowell narrating the story. This episode was directed by Gilbert Cates, a successful stage and screen director who’s responsible for recruiting Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Chris Rock to host the Academy Awards. He also provides the voice of the parrot. And he’s the uncle of Pheobe Cates, aka Kate from Gremlins. Sorry, the cast is so minuscule that I don’t have much to say here.
Who’s The Artist?: The matte paintings, Witch’s robes, and the interior of Rapunzel’s tower, with their interlocking circles, geometric patterns, and swirls, are all inspired by Gustav Klimt, one of my favorite painters. Such a shame that so much beautiful design work is spent on such a lackluster episode. Also, I’m pretty sure the moment where Henry dips Rapunzel into a kiss is supposed to be a reference to Klimt’s most famous painting, The Kiss.
Better Or Worse Than…?: This is a faithful adaptation to be sure, but faithful doesn’t always mean good. Call me a Disney shill, but Tangled is the best version of Rapunzel that’s out there right now. This Rapunzel, on the other hand, can go fall out of a tower, hit its head on a tree and somehow blind itself.
Ranking: Rapunzel receives the lowest ranking…which is currently third place. Rest assured, it’ll take a lot to put this episode above any other that comes after it, and I can predict that’ll be in the bottom five by the time I’m done. I tried to like it, but its poor pacing and overall unpleasant vibe lost me for good, and I’m glad I won’t have to rewatch it anytime soon.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, a little birdie told me that things are about to get a bit more strange. Join me December 6th when I look at The Nightingale.
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 patron Amelia Jones for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!
A magical movie is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month…join me November 20th when I review Bedknobs and Broomsticks!