HBO execs may know a good thing when they see it, they just don’t always know what to do with it — the prime example being this Academy Award-nominated series. Each tale drawn from Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary classic features a unique and spectacular method of animated storytelling, and although this production is a marvel to look at, it’s a strange and ill-fitting addition to HBO’s list of children’s programming.
Billed in the promotional material as “high-spirited stories … for older children and their families,” “Animated Epics: The Canterbury Tales” is quite graphic even in animated form. The scheduling of the show isn’t exactly kid-friendly either, with part one airing at 7:30 p.m. followed by part two the next day at an awkward 3:30 p.m.
This is not the first time literary classics have been presented for kids, especially on HBO. The net’s “Shakespeare: The Animated Tales” successfully tackled some of the Bard’s more complex stories without sacrificing plot. But Shakespeare has greater universal appeal than Chaucer, and even though it’s somewhat toned down, “The Canterbury Tales” may still be too bawdy for the uninitiated. It is worth noting, however, that “The Miller’s Tale” has been omitted from this production.
But, as the animated Chaucer says himself, “Whatsoever you do, don’t take me too literally.” When looked upon purely as an adaptation without regard for intended audience, “Animated Epics” is a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling. Chaucer’s colorful characters are brought vividly to life with (literally) warts and all through Olga Panokina and Fasil Gasanov’s claymation.
The animated Chaucer is our host and moderator during an eventful pilgrimage to the holy city of Canterbury. The group of characters, ranging from commoners to nobility, represents the changing social class structure of medieval England. All agree to pass the time telling stories, with the best storyteller receiving a dinner at the expense of the rest of the group.
Part one features the cautionary tales of the Nun’s Priest, the Knight and the Wife of Bath, while part two contains the saltier Merchant, Parndoner and Franklin’s tales. Brimming with symbolism and irony, the series works quite nicely as a companion piece for high school students studying Chaucer, functioning as a decoder for the original Middle English text.
Still, the animation would fall flat if it weren’t for the carefully chosen voiceovers, featuring top British actors and Royal Shakespeare Co. alumni including Sean Bean, Bill Nighy, Bob Peck, Imelda Staunton and John Wood. It is their performances that power the production.
Writer Jonathan Myerson shows great savvy in preserving the original flavor of the tales. The language and images aren’t compromised because of the animation, in fact, this medium almost allows director Aida Zyablikova more freedom in punctuating Chaucer’s wicked sense of irony. Future planned episodes of “Animated Epics” include “Beowulf,” “Don Quixote” and “Moby Dick.”
Hopefully they can meet the production standards set by “The Canterbury Tales.”