Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2015, 111 min., Color
Family
Not rated (would be G)
StudioCanal
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German), Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Walmart exclusive

Victorian-age literature is full of orphans. Dickens’ gave us David Copperfield, Pip, and Oliver Twist; Twain created Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; L. Frank Baum introduced readers to Dorothy in his Oz books; and Rudyard Kipling wrote about Kim and Mowgli. But the literary orphan who lived the most satisfying life was probably Swiss writer Johanna Spyri’s character, Heidi.

Since 1937, when Shirley Temple played the little Swiss orphan who bounces from place to place in picturesque Switzerland and Germany, there have been more than 20 different film and TV adaptations. But no one captures the spirit of the original 1881 children’s novel better than director Alain Gsponer and his team of German and Swiss filmmakers.

Shot on location in Germany and the Swiss Alps, this most recent and faithful adaptation—available exclusively at Walmart—does the most spectacular job of exploiting the scenery and Heidi’s natural capacity for unbridled joy. With a feel-good default that tends to rub off on most of the people around her, Heidi is a bit like a later American orphan made famous because of the Disney film by the same name: Pollyanna. But instead of playing a “glad game,” it’s Heidi’s positive attitude, helpful nature, and ever-present smile that win her friends. Then again, when your journey goes from living a rather idyllic existence in the Alps with your goatherd grandfather, then boarding with a rich German family in Frankfurt in order to keep their invalid daughter company, and finally back again to be reunited with Grandpa, it’s easier to stay positive than if you’re Dickens’ heroes slogging it out in the dirty and dangerous disease-filled streets of London.

The Alpine scenes in this StudioCanal film are a feast for the eyes, and Heidi is family-friendly with just one disclaimer: the film was made in German with English subtitles, so you have to do a bit of reading or else watch in dubbed English. That might not prove to be too big of a negative, since younger children accustomed to partially animated cartoons probably won’t be bothered by words and lips slightly out-of-synch, and children old enough to read well may find this version of Heidi the perfect first subtitled movie to tackle. It’s an easy-paced film with mostly short exchanges rather than long monologues, and none of the characters talks very rapidly.

It’s well cast, too, with Anuk Steffen radiant as the mop-haired Heidi, Bruno Ganz appropriately grouchy and initially standoffish as the grandfather, and Katharina Schüttler as the curt Frankfort governess. In the sixties, WGN-TV aired a series of movies called Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and this 2015 film has a throwback feel to it. It’s as wholesome as can be, and that means the cutoff for kids is probably junior high age. This film feels older because it’s a costumed affair set in Victorian times, and that means junior high school students will think it too corny (or whatever the current vernacular is). But young children ought to enjoy Heidi.

Part of the appeal is that the story speaks to every child’s fantasy . . . not to be orphaned, of course, but to have an adventure that includes living in the mountains with animals and few rules, relatively free to enjoy your days as the goats graze. Forks? Napkins? What are those? You pick up your wooden bowl with two hands and you drink whatever’s in it. What child hasn’t dreamt of living in such a mountain paradise? Or being rich? If you’re going to be sent away as an orphan, there are worse fates than becoming a part of a rich household where you’re well cared for and treated like a guest rather than a servant.

Especially if you’re a girl, what’s not to like about having a friend your own gender and approximate age living in a big house where the mother is dead and the father travels most of the time, leaving servants to tend to your needs? And when your wheelchair-bound new friend expresses a desire to leave the house and break the overprotective bonds of her governess and father, what young girl wouldn’t secretly love to help her escape . . . even if it’s only for a few hours? It’s not exactly the prison Little Orphan Annie lived in, either. When the servants are occupied, Heidi simply pushes her friend out the front door to the nearby marketplace.

In the original novel, Heidi got her grandfather to pray again, but the religious element is downplayed in this lavishly produced adaptation. The emphasis isn’t on the grandfather’s redemption, but on Heidi finally finding a home. Feel-good classic? Yes, please.

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