18 January 2011 | kylopod
An entertaining, somewhat grownup take on bedtime stories
Hallmark's miniseries "The 10th Kingdom" is not based on any book, and given the staleness of so many fantasy adaptations, that may be a good thing. But it is reminiscent of a range of novels, the kind where modern big-city dwellers find themselves thrust into a preindustrial and typically magical setting. It's a genre that has rarely been done well on screen and is usually the domain of outright camp like "Army of Darkness" (not that there's anything wrong with that). Yet here it is, a straightforward epic fantasy in this tradition, and it doesn't embarrass itself.
About a decade after its original airing, which I missed, I picked up the DVD intrigued but not excited, impressed by the big names in the cast but hardly expecting anything more than a reasonably competent production--at best. I remembered the unhappy experience of Sci-Fi Channel's "Legend of Earthsea," which not even Danny Glover and Isabella Rossellini could save from sheer awfulness. I also remembered Hallmark's solid if unmemorable "Gulliver's Travels" with Ted Danson. I assumed that was the best these sorts of projects usually got. Halfway through "The 10th Kingdom" I was hooked, realizing I had never seen a TV fantasy serial this good before, and savoring every moment.
It begins in the realm of "the nine kingdoms," where an evil queen (Dianne Wiest) plots to take over by transforming the king-to-be (Daniel Lapane) into a golden retriever. The Dog Prince escapes by jumping into a magic mirror, which turns out to be a portal to present-day Manhattan, and crashes into a young waitress (Kimberly Williams) riding her bike through Central Park. At first she thinks it is a stray, until she starts noticing its rather un-canine behavior, such as tracing messages in spilled flour. The queen sends three trolls and a wolfman named Wolf (Scott Cohen) after them. The Wolf sells the waitress's dad (John Laroquette) a magical bean in return for the address of her grandmother's apartment where the girl is headed. If you think you can guess what happens next, you're probably only partly right. Here as in elsewhere, the miniseries follows the fairy-tale conventions only to subvert them.
I was a little uncertain about these early scenes, especially those involving the dim-witted trolls who seemed to have stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon. They tromp through New York, or what they call "the tenth kingdom," calling each other "you idiot" and puzzling over such sorcerous objects as cars, boomboxes, and elevators. But the series picks up pace when the waitress and her dad, accompanied by the Dog Prince, enter the alternate world, where the classic tales of Grimm exist as historical events from a couple of centuries before. "Happy ever after didn't last as long as we'd hoped," the Dog Prince sullenly observes. The Wolf, appearing at first as a sort of Jim Carrey-esque comical villain, soon makes a hilarious and scarcely believable transformation into a fascinating character who dominates the whole story. Meanwhile, the queen sends a menacing Huntsman (Rutger Hauer) to track the group down, wielding an enchanted crossbow guaranteed to kill a living being every time it is fired.
The miniseries cruises through these events with a confidence in tone that screen fantasies often fail to achieve. It strikes a balance between seriousness and silliness, creating an involving and often funny adventure that grows in complexity as the protagonists traverse the different kingdoms. Some elements are more or less predictable, such as the way the mirror that will lead them home always manages to stay just beyond their reach. But the story has a couple of real surprises along the way, and as the Wolf character becomes the focus of attention, we realize we don't want the girl and her father to return home just yet; what's happening in this realm is more compelling.
Among the funniest scenes are their encounters with a blind, demented woodsman, a singing ring, and a trippy swamp with talking mushrooms swaying to "A Whiter Shade of Pale." We meet a few fairy-tale celebrities including a zaftig Snow White (Camryn Manheim) and a 200-year-old Cinderella (Ann-Margret), but most of the time the miniseries settles for more indirect references, such as a logical question that somehow never crops up in most tellings of "Rapunzel."
But "The 10th Kingdom" is not a "Shrek"-style parody. For one thing, while it isn't anywhere near as dark a subversion of fairy tales as "Pan's Labyrinth" or Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm," much of it seems aimed at adults, despite its being labeled in many places (including the DVD cover) as a family film. (That may be one reason for its poor ratings: people were unsure who the intended audience was.) For another, it takes the fantasy part seriously. It vividly imagines the nine kingdoms with their own history and rules, and although many of the elements will be familiar to those well-versed in the fantasy genre, they frequently come with a twist. (Even something as obvious as the werewolf legend is handled in an interesting manner, emphasizing the psychological over the physical.) As usual, the magic never works quite as well as it is advertised: it's unreliable, or unpredictable, or dangerously addictive.
With high production values and a supporting cast full of British character actors, "The 10th Kingdom" has the mark of quality. But it wouldn't have amounted to much if the story weren't compelling. There are several things that make it work: a warm, natural chemistry between Laroquette, Williams, and Cohen, as the father, the daughter, and the enigmatic Wolf; two juicy villain performances by Wiest and Hauer; and a continual inventiveness on the part of the filmmakers, who seem to have put much thought into the subject of fairy tales, but who didn't let their hard work stop them from taking many risks with the material, making the story a lot more fun than it had to be.