Fairy tales from across the rainbow

March 25, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The giant in "Jack and the Beanstalk" says, "Fee-fi-fo-fum. I smell the blood of an African." The witch in "Hansel and Gretel" does a mean rumba. And Little Red Riding Hood's basket is filled with won-ton for Grandma.

These are just a few of the many changes made to children's stories in "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child," a new prime-time children's series premiering at 7:30 tomorrow night on cable channel HBO.

"Happily Ever After" might seem like a simple, animated series for kids. But this engaging television series cuts to the core of our current culture wars, and it's going to force some parents to decide how they really feel about multiculturalism when their children ask if they can watch.

Producers and stars say the series is a long-overdue celebration of cultural diversity, which finally opens these touchstone stories to persons of color. Others will say "Happily Ever After" is another case of political correctness going too far.

The performers, writers and composers involved in the series make for an impressive roster: Harry Belafonte, Denzel Washington, Rosie Perez, B. D. Wong, James Earl Jones, Gregory Hines, Jasmine Guy, Jimmy Smits, Graham Greene, Margaret Cho, Whoopi Goldberg and many others.

The stories to which they lend their voices are among those most cherished and most used by parents to pass on cultural values to their children. The 13 tales that HBO will do this year include: "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Snow White," "The Frog Prince," and "The Emperor's New Clothes."

The three that will launch the series are "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel." All are narrated by Robert Guillaume, the Emmy Award-winning actor most widely known for his work in the sitcom, "Benson."

The producers say it's a coincidence that all three involve supernatural or fierce creatures wanting to eat children. But, be advised, some very young children could be frightened by what they see and hear -- despite the upbeat, original songs and the delicious sense of fun at the heart of these re-imagined tales.

"Jack and the Beanstalk's" giant looks like a cartoon version of Barry White, but the voice is that of rapper Tone Loc. He's kind of scary when he looks down at Jack (voice of Wayne Collins) and says, "A little brown boy would be perfect for roasting." You will wind up smiling, though, at Jack's escape and his final put-down to the giant: "Oh, and by the way, fum and African don't rhyme."

My one problem with any version of "Jack" is that the moral of the story is a little muddy.

"Need is one thing, and greed is another," narrator Guillaume says. "It pays to know what you're chasing, or it winds up chasing you."

OK, but the tale definitely celebrates thievery, saying it's OK to steal as long as you and your mother need the money you're stealing.

The moral of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a lot clearer.

"It's my fault that the wolf came here. Mother told me not to leave the path. But I chose to take foolish chances," the little girl says when the danger has passed.

Again, there are some genuinely funny moments along the way, which even adults will enjoy.

"Your voice sounds terrible," the girl says to the wolf, who is trying to pass as Grandma.

"Everybody's a critic," the wolf snarls under his breath. Wong, who won a Tony for "M. Butterfly," makes for a wonderfully cynical but ultimately inept wolf. Vu Mai, from "The Joy Luck Club," hits all the right notes as the little girl, renamed Little Red Happy Coat.

The richest of the three tales is "Hansel and Gretel." John PiRoman's script has all the great elements of fairy tale and myth: a dark forest, a wicked stepmother (Liz Torres), a fabulous witch (Rosie Perez), and trickster birds trying to fool Hanselito (Christopher Montoya) and Gretelita (Chrissy Padilla).

Oh, yeah, and it has the one other element no European folk tale should be without -- a rumba composed and performed with great energy by Tito Larriva and Charlie Midnight, with just a little help from Susana, the witch.

Viva, Susana.

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