Li’l Orphan Heidi turns up in her third TV adaptation with Noley Thornton as the Swiss miss and Jason Robards as her gruff mountaineer grandfather, and it’s solid family entertainment. Major feature pic of Johanna Spyri’s popular 1880 novel was the sparkling 1937 Shirley Temple film; current TV edition’s pretty, sticks more to the book and exudes life and the sweetness of same.
Director Michael Rhodes performs admirable period drama without going arch or artsy, and if there are moments in which Thornton’s sunny Heidi edges near to cloying, they’re saved by Rhodes’ common sense and restraint.
Scripter Jeanne Rosenberg’s well-constructed teleplay starts out with Grandfather banishing son John (Daniel Flynn), who, with his wife, dies in an accident; they’re survived by infant Heidi, whom Grandfather guiltily refuses to see.
Raised by shirttail relatives, Heidi’s brought to the mountain by opportunist Dete (Jane Hazlegrove), who dumps the girl on the old man. Heidi wheedles her way unsurprisingly into grouchy Grandfather’s heart. But Dete reclaims Heidi from the only home she’s ever known and loved, and she’s off reluctantly to Frankfurt to act as cheer-up companion to dour, chair-bound, 12-year-old Klara (Lexi Randall) of the wealthy Sesemann household, which includes mean governess Fraulein Rottenmeier (Jane Seymour).
Her heart’s back in the Alps with Grandfather, goatherd Peter (Benjamin Brazier) and Peter’s blind grandmother (Patricia Neal). Despite the kindness of Grandma Sesemann (Sian Philips) and Klara’s wealthy, formidable dad, (Andrew Bicknell), and though fond of crippled Klara, Heidi wants to go home, and that’s the crux of the story.
Robards delivers a robust, sympathetic recluse, and Thornton gives an effective if not heart-twisting portrayal of the challenging title role. Randall’s Klara is persuasive, Seymour’s rotten Rottenmeier is an amusing ogre; Neal’s patient, experienced blind woman is a gem.
Grandfather strides back-to-camera up the hill too many times, and some mountain views look artificial or retouched.
Denis Lewiston’s bright camerawork gives the production distinction, Randy Jon Morgan’s editing is superior, and designer John Blezard captures the book’s sense of period and place.