Completely edgeless, ABC’s “Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story” steers clear of investigative bio techniques and focuses instead on pie-eyed wonder, cutesy outfits and aren’t-I-sweet numbers. As the main attraction, Ashley Rose Orr isn’t quite precious enough as America’s original sweetheart, trying way too hard to ape the thesp’s endearing cadences. Beyond that, auds expecting a sweeps expose on the biggest draw of her era will be reminded via overbearing sentimentality that this is a “Wonderful World of Disney” presentation all the way.
Project was produced by “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” topliner Melissa Joan Hart and her mother (sister Emily Anne co-stars), and the production techniques are the telepic’s finest asset. Re-creations of classic Temple clips, from “Old Straw Hat” to “The Good Ship Lollipop,” are well executed by director Nadia Tass, lenser David Parker and production designer Jon Dowding.
But the story — Joe Wiesenfeld adapted Shirley Temple Black’s autobiography — is non-existent: While it briefly mentions her father’s financial improprieties and the Depression-era studio system, there are few reasons to tune in if it’s dirt you seek or even a snapshot of 1930s mindsets. “Child Star” simply reiterates nonstop that Temple, who served as the consultant, was the ultimate angel.
Episodic plot centers only on Temple’s box office bonanza years — 3-years-old through her early teens — until her value dries up. For the most part, Tass and Wiesenfeld lead viewers on a “best of” voyage, highlighting elements that make her look perfect.
Most interesting “inside” moment comes when MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (John O’May) wanted to “trade” Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to Darryl Zanuck (Steven Vidler) for Temple, but Harlow’s death nullified the deal, which would have led to Temple’s starring in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Telepic also briefly brings up racism, attempting to show just how odd it was for a young white girl to appear in a mainstream feature with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (Hinton Battle) in “The Little Colonel.” While Battle shines — their staircase dance is first rate — the issues brought up feel unresolved and unimportant. It’s unfortunate his role wasn’t expanded to highlight themes that are certainly significant but utterly whitewashed here.
Considering the timeslot (7 p.m.) and the Disney umbrella, “Child Star” is exactly what fans would expect: family-friendly and harmless; it’s the meat that’s missing. While Rose, who has tackled Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun,” has the moves down — her dancing style is fluid and mature — there really is no physical resemblance to Temple at all.
Britton is simple and loving as a devoted mom (though given little to do but attend countless auditions), and Friels is solid as the doting dad bathing in riches. Most notable among the supporting players, however, is Battle, who lights up the screen with genuine excitement.
Tech credits are a mixed bag: The studio lot atmosphere isn’t thoroughly convincing (Australia doubles as Hollywood), but the costumes are tops. Temple’s most popular pics — “Little Miss Marker,” “Baby Takes a Bow,” “Now and Forever” among them — are all marqueed at some point throughout.