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The tradition of celebrities narrating children’s literature is as old as recorded media itself; the first thing Thomas Edison ever recorded on the phonograph was his own recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Ever since then, plopping their children down in front of a famous person reading a book has been tried-and-true escape for parents. It’s a win for everyone: the kids get literature, the parents get distraction, and the celebrities receive a low-pressure gig with major PR upside. Not for nothing has SAG-AFTRA provided a helpful archive of famous storytellers, and if you needed another reason to hope for a speedy resolution to the ongoing strike (#sagaftrastrong #wgastrong), then it’s to save the world from recitations of kidlit by narrators with a lesser pedigree like, say, this guy.
Today, we present two such star-powered endeavors, each of which reflect the character of their narrators, but which tap into weirdness through their design as much as through the stories themselves.
This is particularly true of “The Fool and the Flying Ship,” which features Robin Williams doing his best impression of an immigrant Jewish Eastern European grandfather unspooling an old folktale about a young schlub who sets out to win the hand of a princess by fulfilling a number of impossible conditions set forth by the King. The only thing the ridiculous young man has going for him is his innate friendliness, but that proves a decisive advantage, as he assembles a retinue of similarly odd companions who are unusually well-suited to meeting the King’s challenges. The film is a product of Rabbit Ears Entertainment, a storytelling outfit responsible for numerous memorable celebrity narrations (foremost among them Jack Nicholson’s peerless rendering of some of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-So Stories”), but “Flying Ship” stands out as a notably odd entry. Williams’ raucous recounting of the tale frequently feels improvised, with snarky asides and deadpan diversions (perhaps best-exemplified by the casual dismissal of the Fool’s two older brothers), and the rollicking score by The Klezmer Conservatory Band mirrors his energy. The story itself is happily unweighted, with any perceived morals secondary to the silliness of the Fool’s adventures.
There’s a case to be made, though, that Williams is simply following the lead of the wild illustrations that visualize the tale. Not a true animation, the movie consists of still images of Henrik Drescher’s artwork, similar to the snapshots of book pages found on “Reading Rainbow.” Drescher’s drawings are often ugly, sometimes even deranged, but filled with such joyful anarchic spirit that director Craig Rogers doesn’t need to do much more than add a little Ken Burns-effect here and there. The illustrations, set to Williams’ energetic performance, do the lion’s Continue reading THEY CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE FOOL AND THE FLYING SHIP (1991) / MOUSE SOUP (1993)