Lives there a man, woman, or child who has not read the classic children's story, "Heidi"? Well, I must confess I have never read it, but I only taught English for forty years so what do I know? Still, having seen at least three different movie versions of Johanna Spyri's 1880 novel, it feels as if I've read the book. The Internet Movie Database lists eighteen "Heidi" films, this 2005 production the newest one yet. I wish I could say it was also the best, but it seldom reaches too far out of the ordinary.
Screenwriter Brian Finch manages to do a pretty good job of reducing the novel to a movie lasting just over 100 minutes, and most of the supporting players, including several very big names, do a credible job with their parts. Some older viewers may find the lead actress a concern, though; and, likewise, adults may find the film's direction somewhat wayward. Whether these shortcomings would bother youngsters, I doubt.
Let's start with a reminder about the story's plot. You'll recall that Heidi is a Swiss orphan girl whose Aunt Detie sends to live with her curmudgeonly old hermit grandfather high in the Alps. Grandfather is cynical and embittered, preferring his own company away from everybody, and he wants nothing to do with raising and caring for a ten-year-old girl. However, Heidi's ever-cheerful disposition wins him over, and they soon get along famously.
Then, once the child and grandfather have settled in for a while, the moneygrubbing aunt decides to pack Heidi off to the city, where a rich father is looking to pay for a companion for his invalid daughter. Aunt Dedie pockets the money and forces Heidi to leave her beloved grandfather and his mountain retreat for the hustle and bustle of Frankfurt.
The major conflicts in the story are the initial relationship between Heidi and her grandfather; her sorrow at leaving the mountains for the city; a truly wicked governess to the girl with whom she goes to live; Heidi's attempts to return to her grandfather; and various minor dilemmas along the way. Well, you know the story.
Emma Bolger plays Heidi, and she does her work in a useful, workmanlike way rather than in any inspired fashion. Ms. Bolger is cute without being especially pretty, and she is lovable without being adorable. Many viewers will find these combinations just right for the role because it keeps the character and the movie from becoming too cloyingly sweet. Nevertheless, one has a hard time forgetting the 1937 classic with Shirley Temple, who managed to be cute, pretty, lovable, and adorable all at the same time. Then, again, it may be an unfair comparison; no one else could be Shirley Temple.
Of greater concern is director Paul Marcus's often lax pacing. He has done mostly TV work, "Prime Suspect 4" and the like, and it shows. His version of "Heidi" comes off feeling like a made-for-television production. Much of it moves slowly and colorlessly, lacking momentum or drive. The movie almost never catches fire; it seldom lights up as anything much more than a series of picture postcards, except in the middle segment when Heidi goes away to Frankfurt. There, surprisingly, her adventures in the big city eclipse her rather mundane experiences in the mountains.
I suspect the city scenes stand out because they develop the strongest conflict. When Heidi first meets her grandfather, for instance, he is grumpy and standoffish, yet his coldness melts so quickly that the episode generates no tension. By contrast, when Heidi reaches Frankfurt, she meets the evil Miss Rottenmeier, a woman who takes an instant dislike to the girl, and we've finally got some friction worthy of our time with the movie.
Veteran actor Max von Sydow plays the grandfather, and he is almost too good for the rest of the film and too good for such a one-dimensional role. He is at his best when the character is most virulent and resentful, which, unfortunately, is too little of the time in this condensed film version of the story. Fellow veteran Geraldine Chaplin plays Miss Rottenmeier and practically steals the show as the villainess. Well, that is as it should be; the bad guys are usually the most interesting characters in any melodrama. She comes across as such a stern, mean old crone, you'd think she was born to the part. And yet another veteran, Diana Riggs, plays the grandmother of the girl to whom Heidi becomes a companion. While Ms. Riggs may only have a moment's time in the film, she radiants a welcome charm.
The filmmakers made the movie in Slovenia and West Wales, and if any movie cried out for widescreen reproduction, this one does. Instead, we get 1.33:1. There are times when it feels positively claustrophobic, when it should be opening up to all kinds of wonderful vistas. All the same, the mountain shots look grand. It's the "grand-er" that worries me.
This 2005 version of "Heidi" will undoubtedly not be the last, and in the meantime it is not the best, either. Nonetheless, it is sweet and harmless and sentimental, and there are several moments of undoubted pleasure one can find in it. By the end, it even sort of grows on you. A family could find worse "family" pictures to watch.
I'm a little mystified that Warner Bros. still use their old keep-case description for picture size, which reads, "Standard version. This film has been modified as follows from its original version: It has been formatted to fit your screen." I'm sure the studio knows that about half the televisions sold in the U.S. are now widescreen. If this thing were formatted to fit my screen, it would be closer to its theatrical release dimensions of 1.85:1 instead of 1.33:1. Oh, well. Studios seem to think that "family" pictures should be in a family friendly fullscreen, a decision I've never understood.
Aside from the issue of screen size, the picture looks fine. Although it is not of world-beating quality, appearing a bit grainy and rough in places, particularly the second-unit background shooting, its colors are warmly natural and generally radiant, and interior photography is clear and detailed.
There is not much to the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround reproduction short of a few rear-channel bird sounds and some faint musical ambience enhancement. The front channels acquit themselves well in any case, rendering a significantly wide stereo spread, with good breadth and depth. Moreover, the sonics are clear and quiet and require very little else in the way of dynamic range or frequency response.
To say the disc is light on extras would be putting it mildly. There is an opening menu screen; six trailers for other Warner Bros. children's releases; and twenty scene selections, but no chapter insert. English is the only available spoken language, with French and Spanish subtitles.
The film moves in fits and starts. There are long, slow sections intersprinkled with moments of pure joy and heartfelt emotion. "Heidi" is a children's story that we might expect to appeal more to younger viewers, particularly girls, than to adults or rambunctious boys. Certainly, it is pleasant to look at, and the veteran stars make its better scenes a delight. So, it's rather a mixed bag, with an ending that is still hard to resist.