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Television Review

Animated 'Canterbury' Full of Bawdy, Exuberant Tales

May 26, 1999|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Excerpts from 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer's epic about frauds and villains, cuckoldry, chivalry, corruption, love, foul murder and meddling gods and goddesses come to delectable life in HBO's two-part special "Animated Epics: The Canterbury Tales," a 1999 Academy Award nominee in the animated short film category.

Don't let the family hour air times deceive you. This wizardry of stop-motion puppetry and gorgeous cel animation is not for children. There are no thickets of medieval English here, but executive director and writer Jonathan Myerson didn't water down the stories' exuberant bawdiness, scatology and sometimes disturbing darkness.

Three tales are told in Part 1 tonight, "Leaving London," as Chaucer himself joins a motley group making a pilgrimage to a holy shrine in Canterbury. To pass the time, the travelers have a storytelling competition, inspired by sermonizing, moralizing, social practices of the day, folklore and mythology.

Love, marital bliss and marital purgatory are primary themes, accompanied by death and the dark arts. In "The Nun's Priest's Tale," lovely Pertelote, a hen, dismisses her Chanticleer's dire dream as indigestion until it proves prophetic. The earthy, much-married Wife of Bath illustrates her belief in women's sovereignty in a tale about one of King Arthur's knights who avoids the death penalty for rape by fulfilling a task Guinevere sets him. Death seems preferable, however, to the price demanded by the revolting old hag who helps him triumph.

Another traveler, an honorable knight, tells of cousins in Athens who must face each other in knightly battle to win the woman they both love; their fates rest with Venus, Mars and Saturn.

Thursday's Part 2, "Arriving at Canterbury," finds more godly interference in a story about an old man who is cuckolded before his very eyes but is convinced otherwise by his sly young wife.

The fraudulent Pardoner darkens the mood with an ugly tale about three treacherous, debauched villains seeking to slay Death, but the journey ends on a more uplifting note about the nobility of truth, as a husband and wife, a would-be lover and a magician scholar pass a test of character.

Each story is beautifully rendered in various animation styles, from fluid pencil to bold blocks of color and antiquity-inspired designs. The travelers are puppets, given memorable individuality: greedy, unpious, vulgar, sensual, benevolent and ascetic. The visual artistry and creative adaptation are matched by the voice-over artists, a stellar cast of British actors.

*

* "Animated Epics: The Canterbury Tales": "Leaving London," tonight at 7:30 on HBO; "Arriving at Canterbury," Thursday, 3:30 p.m. TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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