Amystery worthy of John Dickson Carr or “Banacek,” the disappearance of a school bus loaded with driver and kids, gets a ho-hum treatment thanks to David Eyre Jr.’s routine, tell-all teleplay. Instead of setting up a true thriller, “They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping” numbly records the story step by step; the suspense, as well as the bus, vanishes.
One major problem with the chronological unfolding is the three dull young men — played by Tim Ransom, the leader, and Travis Fine and Tom Hodges as brothers — who agree to the kidnapping. From good families, they go about organizing the crime and dig a gigantic hole for a trailer in which to hide the youngsters.
And entirely spoil the telefilm’s mystery. What should have been told in flashback after the genuine shock of the bus flying off into nowhere is now stock re-enactment of the ordeal.
Story switches from the background of heroic farmer-driver Ed Ray (Karl Malden, with Julie Harris as his wife) to several of the children’s families to the kidnappers, whose tales and action are scarcely hypnotizing.
The Chowchilla farming community has been well pictured, with moms watching for their kids, the kids exuberant and noisy, and driver Ray taking his reponsibilities seriously.
Director Vern Gillum pulls a few taut moments from the Central California story that made national headlines, and the plight of Ray and the youngsters in the buried trailer are well handled. Stevan Larner’s terrific camerawork gives the TV movie a touch of class, and Tom Finan’s careful editing is rewarding.
Ransom, Fine and Hodges are OK as the kidnappers, but the characters just aren’t that interesting. Bobby Zameroski does a satisfactory job playing Tim, youth who helps Ray when they’re up against it; Debra Bluford and Brendan McCurdy as a mother and son involved in the horrible experience are certainly credible.
Ron Ramin’s supportive score helps the cause. Designer Jonathan Carlson deftly re-creates the California midlands from the Kansas sites. His trailer interior could cause claustrophobia among the susceptible, though it’s not clear why there’s so much light in a buried vehicle.