ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” gets back to basics with the perennial favorite “Little House on the Prairie.” Viewers looking for the glossy, feel-good sentiment of the 1974 series may be surprised by the grittier approach taken here, but true fans won’t be disappointed. This five-part, six-hour limited run is a faithful adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s third novel in the popular “Little House” series. Visually stunning but more realistic than its earlier Hollywood counterpart, this “Little House” is a welcome addition to the usually vanilla field of family programming.
Writer Katie Ford (“Miss Congeniality” and its sequel) combines the spunky-girl angle with the story’s inherent drama for a taut, well-paced series. The script and its execution provide this well-known tale with plenty of heart-pounding moments. Project’s geared for all ages: Its TV-PG rating isn’t for any manufactured violence, strong language or adult situations, but rather a few intense scenes that superbly convey the perilous nature of pioneer life.
The two-hour series premiere chronicles the Ingalls family’s journey from Pepin, Wis., to the wild Kansas territory. With work and food too scarce in Wisconsin, the promise of a better life and a fresh start seems worth all the risks. Still, everyone’s mettle is tested when they face obstacles including a treacherous crossing on the frozen Mississippi, an encounter with rattlesnakes and a pack of hungry wolves. Part one’s cliffhanger is deftly executed.
Director David L. Cunningham’s visceral style lends itself well to Ford’s script — his lingering closeups of snowy pines, muddy banks and endless prairie skies evoke the wildness and wonder of the time. John Cameron’s ethereal score is also a good fit, infusing the piece with a spiritual, Native American feel.
Cameron Bancroft as Charles “Pa” Ingalls channels more Charles Bronson than Michael Landon, offering a fresh but equally appealing take on the character. His banter with Laura, and their strong bond, is the emotional focus of the movie.
Kyle Chavarria as Laura is appropriately appealing, but probably faces the biggest hurdle in having to displace the freckled-faced image of Melissa Gilbert in the role.
The only casting quibbles: Erin Cottrell, as Caroline, is a bit too pretty and dainty to project the quiet reserve and strength of a pioneer wife. Similarly, Danielle Ryan Chuchran’s Mary is too demure, often overshadowed by Chavarria’s antics. Gregory Sporlader, however, is an inspired choice for Mr. Edwards, the colorful bachelor neighbor who provides some well-placed comic relief.
Limited series continues April 2, 9, 16 and 23.