Beware! This is a bit more of a ramble than usual!
I borrowed the DVDs of this 10 hour Hallmark TV series released in 2000 with very low expectations. The cover notes were not enticing and suggested a somewhat tedious ‘family’ fantasy series. However I was pleasantly surprised to find a most unusual and unique series, which although produced by Hallmark with two of the main characters hailing from New York (complete with twin towers), was mainly filmed at Pinewood Studios in Britain and on location in various European countries. It is also written by an English writer, Simon Moore. Unexpected actors pop up throughout: Rutger Hauer doing one of his fine evil turns as a Hunter, servant to an evil queen, Robert Hardy as a member of the council of a Kingdom, Jimmy Nail as a green faced goblin (not enough of him unfortunately!) and other actors familiar to those who watch a lot of British TV.
The premise is that a 21 year old waitress (Virginia) and her janitor father (Tony) accidentally end up in a parallel dimension after travelling through a magic mirror in Central Park. This parallel dimension counts fairy stories such as Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and various nursery rhymes such as Little Bo Peep as part of their real history. It is a region inhabited by trolls, fairies, elves, dwarves, evil Queens and handsome princes, wishing wells, lots of magic and boasts institutions with enticing titles such as The Snow White Memorial Prison. The young woman and her father are accompanied in their travels by a snobby young Prince, who has been turned into a golden retriever by an evil queen, as well as a man who is half wolf. This is definitely not a children’s series with trolls who are not afraid to swear (what sounds like ‘fucking hell’ at first turns out to be ‘suck an elf’), sexual references (Wolf’s tail is the subject of some fairly risqué material), dead bodies, threats of torture and people in the rather brutal fairy tale kingdoms who display all the flaws of people in modern 21st century society.
There are funny scenes, such as our heroes careening along in a cart across rural fairytale countryside all (including the dog) reading the best of what New York has to offer in terms of self-help books, books collected by Wolf in a trip through the magic mirror to New York.
Another memorable scene takes place in an enchanted forest through which Tony and his daughter have decided to take a short cut. All the usual rules of magical forests apply – don’t drink the water, don’t eat the magic mushrooms and don’t fall asleep. As soon as they enter the forest Tony starts to hear Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ playing in the background. Tempted by a very conveniently placed omelette pan and eggs, Tony decides to cook some breakfast. He does so in front of a grove of magic mushrooms who try to tempt him to place some of their number in the omelette. As he and his daughter start to fall asleep and are well on their way to becoming plant fodder, the mushrooms and Tony sing along to the end section of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. All those mushrooms singing in chorus is quite something.
A digression here, the first record I ever bought (back in 1972) was the 1969 album A Salty Dog by Procol Harum. My favourite song of theirs was the haunting title track ‘A Salty Dog’ which I liked both for the music and for the lyrics reminiscent of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. A few years ago I bought the CD, but the CD just didn’t sound the same as the vinyl. I have found this with other music I used to know very well on vinyl such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Fortunately, I rarely want to revisit past musical enthusiasms – there are far too many new ones to investigate.
Back to The 10th Kingdom however! The acting performance by Scott Cohen as Wolf is a real standout with a complex and necessarily over the top blend of tragedy, comedy and humanised animal traits. He is also an unlikely romantic lead but unfortunately this aspect of his performance is somewhat let down by Kimberly Williams who plays Virginia. The premise of her character is that she is cold, uninvolved and afraid of the world and the point of her journey is for her to learn to lose her fears and open up. Unfortunately Williams is not really able to demonstrate this transformation in any convincing way and remains much the same as she was at the beginning, a pretty and competent but rather disengaged and bland young thing.
All in all, a most enjoyable series. I have now bought the DVD as it is a series which can definitely bear multiple re-viewings.