Faerie Tale Theatre

Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre was an anthology television series back in the 1980s that showcased various fairy and folktales, and with some surprisingly big names in its cast. The show ran for six seasons, of which a The Little Mermaid episode only arrived in its sixth and final season, while some lesser-known stories were adapted before it. I wonder if perhaps the little mermaid's story was put off because of its sad ending, or because of the technical requirements it would require to stage it. Perhaps both?

Pam Dawber is Pearl, the little mermaid, and the role makes full use of her big, beautiful blue eyes, though this performance really shows how difficult it is for an actress to play the mute portion without a voice-over. Treat Williams is the gormless Prince Andrew, Helen Mirren is rather sneaky Princess Emelia, and rounding off the sea crew are Brian Dennehy as King Neptune, Karen Black as the Sea Witch, and Donna McKechnie and Laraine Newman as Pearl's elder sisters Anemone and Coral.

The episode itself is a pretty straightforward adaptation, with some new details dropped into the story here and there. Pearl is 21 years old when she goes to the surface, and she's warned beforehand by her father and sisters to stay away from danger, whether the obvious or the less obvious. More warning comes later when Pearl falls in love with Andrew and visits the Sea Witch, who tries repeatedly to get Pearl to turn back. But no, Pearl cannot forget her prince, and goes to land where she's dismayed to find Andrew only capable of loving her as a foundling, instead of loving her as a woman the way he does Princess Emelia.

This adaptation is really dated, but I find it charming anyway due to its earnestness, and its creative attempts at staging. A tight budget, but they still managed to film on a beach and in water (a tank, maybe?), do some composite shots with wirework, and using a windmaker to blow the mermaids' hair in a studio to evoke their being underwater. That last one may look over-the-top, but it's still a creative solution for what's effectively a stage play, and I dig it for that.

The story itself tries to be kind to the little mermaid, highlighting how naive she is and contrasting that to almost everyone around her: her father, her sisters, the Sea Witch, and Emilia. It's a cynical world, and on hand Pearl does have to learn this the hard way, but on the other it's a nice way to highlight the beauty of her compassion for others. I suppose this is why Emilia, this adaptation's version of the Other Princess, is made so much more obviously the opposite of Pearl. Emilia is mature, self-aware, and fully recognizes Pearl's innocence, which makes her jealous enough to make sure that Andrew belongs completely to her.

Side note: It's really interesting how this Sea Witch resembles Ursula. She's purple, she's got a funky hairdo, she is able to 'walk', and has a pretty cool singing voice. Disney's version came out two years after this episode aired, so this is... probably a nifty coincidence.

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