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“I have seen tears in the Emperor’s eyes. For me, that is the richest treasure.” “How can I reward you then?” “Perhaps you can give something to everyone else.” – An Emperor’s first step towards learning compassion, thanks to a humble little bird

My great-aunt is a former educator who fostered a love of reading in me at a young age. She frequently gave me picture books as presents and when she moved out of state, she sent me copies of classic stories in the mail – one of them being the subject of today’s episode. The Nightingale, or The Emperor’s Nightingale in some circles, is one of the more underrated fairy tales, and among the best written by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s easy to forget that beyond all the forced tragic endings, Andersen was capable of lovely prose, imaginative flights of fancy, and sharp critiques of the establishment. The Nightingale has all this and more in spades.

So of course, being the 80s, they found a way to make it awkward.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the story and I do have a fondness for this episode, but there are certain choices made that are determinedly (ahem) problematic by today’s standards.

But what is the story of The Nightingale about, you may ask? Well, before I get to recounting the fine details, I’d say it’s about the role of the artist in society: how they’re perceived, appraised, exploited, and discarded at the whims of a fickle upper class, and how they find more freedom and creativity outside the system than within. It’s also about how true art can change people and teach them empathy. Trust me, though, all this is not as pretentious as it sounds.

Our story takes place in Cathay, which is the antiquated European name for China. And for a story that takes place in China, almost everyone we see is awfully…white.

Yeeeeeaaaahhhh, once you realize this episode is 90% yellowface, it’s impossible to ignore. Mick Jagger as the Emperor gets the worst of it – you read that correctly, Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones plays the Emperor. If that casting choice wasn’t confounding enough, then his look should do the trick: Fu Man Chu ‘stache, slanted eye makeup, long pointed fingernails, and topknot so over the top that it should be illegal. I mean the original story was written by a white Danish man who never stepped foot outside of Europe and whose only exposure to Eastern culture was The Arabian Nights, so it’s not exactly a sound foundation to begin with, but it can work in the right hands. There are some Asian actors in the cast that balances out the predominant whiteness a bit, but they’re mostly in secondary roles.

Anyway, the Emperor, who’s lived his whole life in the palace, spares no expense when it comes to glamor and luxury. Even the flowers in the royal gardens have silver bells attached to them so nobody can pass by without noticing their beauty. In the middle of their work, the gardeners meet a humble maid rushing home to feed her sick mother scraps from the kitchen. One of the gardeners (played by the man, the myth, the orderer of EXTRA THICC, Mako), tells her about a special kind of tea she can brew to cure her mother’s illness.

Of course Mako would know a thing or two about tea.

The maid follows Mako’s instructions and finds a pair of playful fairies in the forest, Pansy and Primrose, who lead her to the magical root she needs to make the tea. These fairies don’t come up again and weren’t even in the original story, so I’m not entirely sure why they’re here to begin with. Perhaps the screenwriters felt there wasn’t enough magic in this story. The maid walks home through the woods and down to the sea, where she encounters our titular bird singing its beautiful song.

Everything she knows she picked up from Mary Poppins.

That very same evening, the Emperor addresses his fawning court with a bit of bad news. Poets from around the world have come to his palace to admire and describe its beauty; the Emperor finally got around to reading their writings and was thrilled – until he found one review that said the wonders of his home pales in comparison to the Nightingale’s song. Since he nor anyone else in the palace has ever left it, they know of no such creature. The Emperor demands to see this marvelous Nightingale for himself because without it he can’t get no…there’s a word for it, it’s on the tip of my tongue.

Everyone in the Emperor’s inner circle rushes around the palace searching for anyone who might know where to find the elusive Nightingale; if they fail to bring him the bird in twenty-four hours, the Emperor decrees they shall endure the unbearable deathly punishment of…being punched in the stomach.

Andersen was never afraid to call out monarchs and the upper class for their petulance and selfish immaturity; as such, the courtiers treating the Emperor’s “punishment” as serious business is meant to be played for laughs. Mako points the court towards the kitchen maid and she agrees to introduce them to the Nightingale. In return, the Prime Minister promotes her to Imperial Kitchen Maid with the added perk of being allowed to watch the Emperor dine every night.

“So no 401K, no dental, not even paid sick leave? Eh, better than a punch to the gut, I guess.”

The maid leads the foolish fops into the forest, where they mistake the noises of croaking frogs and sneaky foxes for the Nightingale. She patiently sets them straight and gives them the bird (no, not like that). Though flabbergasted by how simple and plain the Nightingale looks, the Prime Minister cordially invites her to the palace to sing for the Emperor. It turns out the bird can talk as well as sing and she accepts. Her song moves the Emperor and the royal court to tears. The Emperor presents her with his golden slipper to wear around her neck as a token, but our humble bird is happy just seeing him touched by her music. When the Emperor insists on rewarding her, we get the opening quote, where she asks if he could give something to everyone else instead.

This leads into the second theme of the story, that of recognizing the value of life. The Emperor, sheltered and raised on hollow ceremonies, lives as if in a dream, heavily disassociated from his fellow man. The royal court, molded by such a cold environment while also perpetuating it, doesn’t help either. It’s why he doesn’t understand that giving the Nightingale one of his shoes isn’t the honor he thinks it is. The Nightingale now holds some leverage over him when he insists on giving her something, but rather than take advantage of him, she uses it to further teach him some more empathy for others. The Emperor decrees that everyone in the kingdom will receive a gem from the treasury in honor of the Nightingale, something that will bring both beauty and value to those who need it.

The Nightingale stays in the palace at the Emperor’s insistence. She wakes him each morning with one of her countless songs and is all the rage at court. The courtiers attempt to mimic her voice by gargling, nobles plan on naming their children after her, the Music Master has his hands full trying to transcribe her tunes, even the servants greet each other as they pass by with “Nightin!” and “Gale!” Again, Andersen really knew how to rip into upper-class twits kow-towing to ridiculous fashions, not unlike how he portrayed the nobles currying favor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The episode, however, cuts several scenes from the original tale that show how restricting the Nightingale’s newfound adulation is for her (probably due to technological restrictions of the time). She can’t leave the palace or even fly on her own; she can only be carefully led about on a leash twice a day, which starts taking a toll on her state of mind and thus, her music.

All is well until the Emperor receives a gift from the Emperor of Japan: a clockwork nightingale made of gold and jewels that sings when wound up. Everyone is charmed by it. The Music Master suggests that the real and mechanical nightingales perform a duet together, but it goes disastrously. The real Nightingale’s song is unpredictable every time and clashes with the toy bird’s single looped tune. The court lavishes their attention on the clockwork nightingale because it’s the prettier of the two and can make a recognizable song. Following the narrative of how society views artists, it shows that a shallow unappreciative public is, unfortunately, willing to disregard true art for whatever pretty flash-in-the-pan monotony comes their way, foolishly thinking beauty and art are interchangeable.

Saddened, our Nightingale flies back to her home in the woods. The court completely turns their backs on her once they realizes she’s gone, saying the mechanical bird they have now was always the better one. The Emperor, the only person besides the kitchen maid who seems hurt by the Nightingale’s sudden departure, morosely declares that she is officially banished from the palace.

Life continues as always, but the Emperor isn’t as happy as he was when the Nightingale was there. He falls back into his old habits of bestowing with empty presents when he catches Mako whistling the artificial nightingale’s tune and dubs him the “Imperial Mimic of the Clockwork Bird”; a fancy title, but one that does nothing to alleviate his financial or societal status. Things come to a head when the clockwork nightingale is played one too many times and breaks down. The royal doctor and watchmaker fix it up, but because of how delicate the inner workings are, it can only be played once a year.

So now the Emperor is left with no music to fill his life and bring him happiness. The loneliness begins eating away at him. It’s here we get a scene between that wasn’t in the story but is a welcome addition. The kitchen maid runs into him while he’s sitting alone in his garden and is terrified that she’ll be punched in the stomach for looking at him. But the Emperor gives her “special dispensation” so he’ll have someone to talk to. The two get to know each other and the Emperor forms his first human connection; there’s even hints at a possible romance between them. Yes, there is that power imbalance between the two, but the promise of something transcending that lingers beneath the surface of their dialogue.

Let’s face it, Mick Jagger is no actor, but taking the character he’s portraying here into account…he actually kind of works in the role. I mean yes, I would have preferred an actual Chinese person playing a Chinese part, but that aloofness, that disconnect, that palpable space between him and the other actors (both physically on set and emotionally) helps sell that this is a man raised to shut away his feelings with no knowledge of how to connect with the people around him; that he’s slowly but surely learning how to overcome his frostier instincts, and form authentic emotional bonds. It even works with some of the immature-sounding dialogue he’s given because, in contrast to the cold adult front he’s been trained to show at all times, it gives him a childlike earnestness in wanting to form a meaningful relationship with somebody, anybody. The Emperor and the maid don’t even share scenes in the original fairy tale, so it’s nice to finally see these two characters together for once.

Unfortunately, the Emperor soon falls gravely ill. The doctors say he won’t survive to morning. The court makes a great show of mourning their esteemed leader but begin jockeying for his position in the meantime. Only the kitchen maid, alone in the shadows, genuinely weeps for him. The Emperor, meanwhile has to deal with an unwanted visitor – the spirit of Death.

Not gonna lie, this Death is creepy as fuuuuuuck. Most depictions of him are tall, thin and bony with a deep hollow voice. This Death is smaller but impish, quick and reedy; less Grim Reaper and more demon-like. His introduction is also shot in a different frame rate that thrusts him headfirst into the uncanny valley. Death mocks the Emperor by putting on his crown and holds his sword at his throat as he forces him to relive his past regrets.

Since the court is biding their time until the Emperor is all dead instead of mostly dead, the maid runs into the woods to find the same magical root that will save him like her mother. Alas, no such luck. The Nightingale appears and the maid beseeches her to comfort him in his final hours. Moments before Death can claim the Emperor, the Nightingale arrives outside the window and sings her song. Death is so moved that he begs her to continue when she stops. She promises to do so, but only if he surrenders the sword, then the crown. She sings to him of a beautiful garden where the elder tree and wild flowers grow among the tombstones – Death’s garden. He’s overcome with such a longing to visit it that he slinks away into the night, leaving the Emperor to fall into a peaceful sleep.

The Nightingale stays to sing the Emperor awake the following morning. With Death pried away from his side, he’s made a complete recovery. Overcome with remorse for how he’s treated the Nightingale, the Emperor apologizes and promises to smash the false bird to pieces and let her sing only when she wishes if she’ll stay with him. Again, when that childlike desire for affection comes out of the Emperor, it’s surprisingly endearing. The Nightingale tells the Emperor that she must be able to come and go as she pleases, but she’ll visit him every once in a while and sing to him of all the good and bad that is kept from him so he may rule his kingdom wisely. But she warns him not to tell anyone how he knows what he learns.

“And none of this ‘A little bird told me’ nonsense, got it?”

The royal court is about to start the Emperor’s funeral when he waltzes right in pleasantly wishing them a good morning. He and the kitchen maid go out into the world together, and thus our story comes to a close.

Faerie Tale Theatre’s The Nightingale is not a bad introduction to the fairy tale. The dialogue and narration is taken almost word-for-word from Andersen’s writing. The few moments of filler emphasize the Emperor’s loneliness and how the decadence he’s surrounded with fails to make up for the connectivity he needs. Though he takes center stage more than the Nightingale and her symbolic artistic resonance does in this outing, the episode’s takeaway is no less important: that those in power should think less about rewarding others with lavish but empty gifts and titles, and more about what they can do for others; that all the luxury in the world is no substitute for compassion and love.

That said, I more than understand why the casting and Orientalism would be a deal-breaker for some. There were and still are plenty of talented Asian actors, writers, artists and filmmakers out there, and the industry could and should do better.

Other Notes:

  • This episode marks the first time a story from someone other than the Brothers Grimm was adapted for the show.
  • The frog that the kitchen maid and courtiers find in the forest has a crown on its head. Maybe Prince Robin visited China before he found his princess.
  • Is it just me, or does the underscoring in the scene where the Emperor and kitchen maid meet for the first time sound a bit like “Something There” from Beauty and the Beast?
  • The “songs” the Nightingale sings are really from a Chinese flute called a Dizi, which can produce distinctly high-pitched notes that befit a bird’s tweeting (on an unrelated note, doing research for these reviews is fun).
  • After a bad episode where the female protagonist is named, we go back to a decent one where she has no name. C’est la vie.
  • Mako is double-cast as one of the courtiers as well as the gardeners. While I’m always up for double the Mako in anything, it still emphasizes my point about the casting decisions made.
  • Compared to the previous episode, the Nightingale puppet is the opposite of nightmare fuel. Yes, the Mary Poppins comparison is spot-on and the syncing with both dialogue and music isn’t great, but when it works, it works.

Hey, Was That…: The most star-studded cast so far? Why yes! Shelley Duvall narrates and voices the Nightingale. Barbara Hershey of Once Upon A Time, Hoosiers and more is the Kitchen Maid. Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, plays the fairy Pansy. Academy-Award winner and Morticia Addams herself Anjelica Houston is Primrose. Bud Cort of Harold and Maude fame plays the Music Master. The conniving Prime Minister is played by Edward James Olmos. Assisting Mako in the gardens is Chao Li Chi, aka Uncle Chu from Big Trouble in Little China. Bobby Porter, long-time stunt coordinator for television and films including Terminator 2, Matilda, The Bodyguard and Jumanji plays Death. And finally, the Royal Doctor is Keye Luke, accomplished muralist and movie poster designer who went on to pave the way for more Chinese and Asian-American actors to appear in mainstream entertainment…but he’s probably best known as the mysterious shopkeeper from Gremlins.

Who’s The Artist?: Edmund Dulac, a wonderful illustrator who, by astounding coincidence, illustrated the story of The Nightingale in one of his fairy tale collections. Some of the shots are taken right from his illustrations.

Better Or Worse Than…?: Even though The Nightingale is one of my favorite fairytales, there are precious few adaptations of it to compare this one to. HBO’s Happily Ever After did a fun gender-bender version of the story with “The Empress’ Nightingale”. It was also faithfully adapted as part of the British animated series The Fairytaler, which is dedicated solely to animating Andersen’s stories. Acclaimed Czech animator Jrni Trnka created a feature-length stop-motion version narrated by Boris Karloff which I checked out while writing this review. It’s not easy tracking down a copy in decent quality here in the States but it’s well worth watching if you can find it.

And, ah, not to toot my own horn, but I wrote a screenplay that moved the story to a modern setting with commentary on the music industry for a screenwriting class. If you know anyone starting up another fairy tale anthology series, call me. I’ve got ideas.

Ranking: On the one hand, I enjoyed watching this more than the past two episodes combined. On the other hand, yellowface…

…All right, we’re only four episodes in so I promise it won’t hold this spot forever, but for now it gets second place between Tale of the Frog Prince and Rumplestiltskin. I get that not everyone can look past the casting choices and Orientalism, but if you can, it’s still a well-told tale with some lovely visuals, good acting and a heartwarming ending. Please don’t cancel me.

Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, a tale of royal narcolepsy gets a lot more interesting with a superhero and one of Broadway’s grand dames in the lead roles of Sleeping Beauty.

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, TylerFG and Sam Flemming for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!

Christmas Shelf Reviews resume on December 13th when a plucky little dog joins all of the other reindeer to become Olive The Other Reindeer.