Judge Clark Douglas thinks people named Rottenmeier probably shouldn't be trusted.
"R-O-D-E-N-T…that's just a fancy word for rat!"
Johanna Spyri's novel Heidi remains a surprisingly enduring piece of children's literature, seemingly inspiring yet another film or television adaptation every decade or so. The 1982 Hanna-Barbera animated feature Heidi's Song marks the fourth adaptation of the story I've encountered (following the 1937 film starring Shirley Temple, the 1968 television film with Maximillian Schell and the 1993 miniseries featuring Jason Robards and Jane Seymour). This animated tale certainly isn't the best of the adaptations, but it's quite possibly the strangest (though I must admit that I haven't seen Heidi 4 Paws, which features canines in all of the central roles).
The story hasn't changed much: Heidi (Margery Gray, Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure) is a sweet-natured young Swedish girl nobody wants. Heid's mother is dead, so snooty Aunt Dete (Virginia Gregg, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing) drops the girl off with her grandfather (Lorne Greene, Battlestar Galactica), a cantankerous man who lives on an isolated farm in the alps. Grandfather is initially unhappy about the situation, but eventually grows quite fond of his charming granddaughter. Alas, just when things start to turn peaceful, Aunt Dete returns and sends Heidi off to live with an upper-class family. Heidi has no trouble making friends with the sickly Klara (Pamelyn Ferdin, Charlotte's Web), but suffers under the tyrannical rule of the wicked Fraulein Rottenmeier (Joan Gerber, DuckTales). Will Heidi ever escape and return to a happier life with her grandfather?
Yes, of course she will, but it takes an awfully long time. While the post-Rottenmeier material is a pretty substantial and important part of the book, once Heidi escapes, the film seems in a rush to wrap things up. That's actually happened before in some of the other adaptations, but what makes it particularly strange in this case is that the film's central focus seems to be on Heidi's unhappy stay at Klara's house. The core of the tale has always been the relationship between Heidi and her grandfather, but that feels like a background element in Heidi's Song. In fairness, almost all of the plot elements in the film feel like they're playing second fiddle to the whimsies of the animators.
The most memorable and inexplicable material in Heidi's Song has nothing whatsoever to do with the story it's based on. Early in the first act, we're treated to a "Heffalumps and Woozles"-style dark fantasy in which Heidi dreams of being attacked by all kinds of witches, ghosts and goblins. It never really leads anywhere or ties into anything; it's just a self-contained musical set piece that exists because the filmmakers wanted to do something like that. Similar is a big musical number later in the film in which a giant rat voiced by Sammy Davis, Jr. (A Man Called Adam) sings about the sordid nature of his species (hahahaha, because Davis was in The Rat Pack). One might assume that the combination of sequences like these and greater emphasis on the dark middle stretch of the story would make Heidi's Song a particularly bleak take on the novel, but that isn't really true. The insistent darkness is constantly undercut by countless slapstick gags and a perpetually cheerful protagonist.
Heidi herself is certainly the most puzzling and unsatisfying element of the film. She's almost eerily robotic in her desire to view the bright side of every situation; there are moments in which she makes Pollyanna look like a cold-hearted cynic. On top of this, she's the most incredibly incompetent little girl in the history of cinema. In an introductory song, her grandfather asks if she is capable of helping out with some very simple chores. Alas, Heidi's self-proclaimed skills are…um…a bit less valuable:
Grandfather: "Can you shout to call the dogs?"
This is followed by a shot of Heidi falling off a log, hitting her head and giggling. Feeding animals, carrying milk and herding sheep are also completely beyond her talent level, but at least she's "good at making friends." Suffice it to say that Heidi's Song isn't exactly going to get Gloria Steinem's seal of approval anytime soon.
Animation junkies are likely to get the most enjoyment out of Heidi's Song, as the film features some genuinely inventive imagery (even if a good deal of it—I'm looking at you, evil dachshund—seems copy-and-pasted from earlier Hanna-Barbera productions) and the vocal talents of old pros like Peter Cullen, Frank Welker and Michael Bell. There's also a very brief turn from Richard Erdman, the actor who plays Leonard on NBC's Community. The songs by Sammy Cahn and Burton Lane aren't exactly Oscar-worthy, but they're tuneful and pleasant. There are small pleasures littered throughout Heidi's Song, but they aren't plentiful or memorable enough to compensate for the sloppy storytelling and fractured tone. Still, like most Hanna-Barbera productions, I suspect this one will go down easy with the kids.
The most disappointing element of this release is the transfer, which is dingy and dirty. The movie really could have used a proper restoration, but this no-frills Warner Archive release presents a drab-looking version of the film loaded with scratches, flecks and excessive grain. It's hardly unwatchable, but it looks pretty rough. The mono audio track fares a little better, though there's still some hissing and popping on occasion. No supplements of any kind are included on the disc.
There are undoubtedly some animation buffs and nostalgia-influenced adults who will greatly appreciate this release, but Heidi's Song is by no means the best way to experience Spyri's lovely story.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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