Before, whenever I heard the name "Heidi", I thought of Shirley Temple being cute, or a children's book that I never read, or, most infamously, an American Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets on November 17, 1968 which, during an intensely suspenseful fourth quarter, was suddenly interrupted by NBC for the premiere of a brand new "Heidi" TV-movie, causing frenzied football fans all along the East Coast to tear their hair out in utter, gibbering consternation.
But that was before. Now, having just seen the latest Swedish film adaptation of Johanna Spyri's 1881 children's book HEIDI (2015), not only has my perception of the story gone up considerably, but you might even call me a fan. At least, a fan of this wonderfully rendered and exquisitely produced version.
Anuk Steffen is disarmingly endearing in the title role as a young orphan girl pawned off on her gruff grandfather by an uncaring aunt. Grandfather is played by Bruno Ganz, known mainly these days as Adolf Hitler in DOWNFALL (2004) thanks to all those "Hitler Reacts" video memes on the internet.
The mountain sequences are dazzling with their beautiful locations and photography, whether during the lush green spring and summer or the frosty snow of winter. Heidi frolics almost as a feral child, accompanying her young friend Peter during his daily goatherding duties or just hanging out with and gradually humanizing the once misanthropic old man.
Her happiness is short-lived, however, when mercenary Aunt Dete (Anna Schinz) returns and takes her away to the city to live with a wealthy widower--and mostly absentee father--as a companion to his wheelchair-bound daughter, Klara (Isabelle Ottmann), an arrangment from which the unscrupulous aunt makes a tidy profit.
Thus, Heidi's dilemma is that she yearns to escape back to Grandfather and her beautiful mountaintop home but also dreads leaving poor Klara alone in her dreary, joyless existence.
Director Alain Gsponer (LIFE ACTUALLY) has a very nimble and imaginative style that adapts well to the various settings. The cinematography is consistently fine, as is the film's musical score.
While the Swiss Alps provide some incredible eye-candy, even the believably gritty city and village settings are impeccably rendered and totally convincing. The mansion scenes are suitably oppressive, sort of like a children's story as written by one of the Brontë sisters. I also sense something of a GREYSTOKE vibe at times, so jarring is Heidi's forced transition into so-called civilized life, with a bit of A LITTLE PRINCESS thrown in as well.
The cast are so good at their roles and the script so well-written that Heidi's story is effortlessly engaging from beginning to end. Her eventual reunion with Grandfather and her precious mountains delivers a well-earned emotional catharsis.
One of the film's main strengths is that it takes its story seriously--the drama and pathos are realistically handled, and lighthearted moments spring naturally from the situations without seeming forced or artificially cute.
The DVD from Omnibus Entertainment and Film Movement is in 2.40:1 widescreen with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby surround sound. Dubbed English or original German with English subtitles are available. No extras.
I feel now as though I've been missing out on this story all these years, although I can't imagine it being presented in such a realistic and satisfying fashion as it is here. There's so much more to this version of HEIDI than its innocuous-sounding title might suggest, and it should please both children and the adults who watch it with them to an equal degree.
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DVD and Digital Debut: April 4, 2017