It is difficult to critically assess a film as shamelessly saccharine and jam-packed with human goodness as is “Anya’s Bell” and not come across sounding like some kind of compassionless stooge. But hey, the truth is the truth; it hurts sometimes. The bottom line is that this telepic is so bloated with contrived sentiment that it tends to implode from its own deliriously mawkish approach.
And talk about a curious choice of film to run on Halloween night. “Anya’s Bell” sends the cliche meter careening out of control. It boasts more crisis-rich elements than any 10 original flicks combined, with David Alexander’s sugarcoated teleplay intermingling blindness, dyslexia, stroke, racism and interracial bonding. Not exactly the perfect accompaniment to candy corn and miniature Snickers.
The movie is clearly designed as a star vehicle for Della Reese, whose movie follows her own “Touched by an Angel,” giving her three successive hours of Sunday night exposure on CBS.
With “Anya’s Bell,” she delivers the equivalent of “Touched by a ‘Tweener” with her spectacularly sappy turn opposite talented moppet Mason Gamble (“Dennis the Menace,” “Rushmore”).
Reese portrays Anya Herpick, a proud woman who can’t see. Gamble is Scott Rhymes, a sensitive kid who can’t read. Together, Anya and Scott teach one another all sorts of insightful stuff about perseverance and courage and overcoming adversity. Scott has a disability in his brain, Anya in her heart.
But together (with Anya playing surrogate grandma), they can conquer anything! Anything! (Insert rising orchestral crescendo here.) The fact that it’s set in 1949, at the height of African-American-bashing and long before any understanding of learning disabilities, helps lend “Anya’s Bell” its period-driven sense of poignancy.
Helmer Tom McLoughlin makes certain that the proceedings never lapse into subtlety. He keeps the maudlin heat burning on high throughout, with every small accomplishment heralded by cataclysmic musical explosions from Lee Holdridge.
The quaint look fashioned by director of photography Gordon C. Lonsdale and production designer Chester Kaczenski is ultimately undercut by the heavy doses of sweetener.
For CBS, “Anya’s Bell” looks to be about dyslexic awareness more than anything else. Its press materials cite sobering statistics on the condition, as well as the scads of celebs afflicted with it (Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey Gold, Harry Belafonte, Cher, Edward James Olmos, Tom Cruise). This perhaps indicates that dyslexia may actually help fuel the quest for success rather than hinder it, a concept that could have made for a far more intriguing telepic.