'Heidi' Beguiles Again A Mini-series On The Disney Channel Reprises The Children's Classic. The Tale Of The Resilient, Resourceful Girl Is Sure To Delight Youngsters.

Posted: July 18, 1993

AMONG THE CLASSICS OF children's literature, Heidi has ranked high ever since the adorable Alpine girl and her gruff grandfather first appeared in a novel by Johanna Spyri 112 years ago. Tonight on pay-cable television, the effervescent 8-year-old demonstrates that she has not lost a single sparkle of her charm.

Until now, the best-known Heidis on film were those portrayed by Shirley Temple and Jennifer Edwards. At the peak of her popularity, Temple starred in a 1937 movie with Jean Hersholt as her grandfather. Edwards played the part in a 1968 telemovie that many angry football fans remember as "the Heidi game."

With only 65 seconds to play, the New York Jets were leading the Oakland Raiders, 32-29, when NBC, which was telecasting the game, cut away to start Edwards' Heidi on time. In a fantastic finish, unseen by Jets fans, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in the last nine seconds to win. The uproar led to the current TV practice of showing professional games all the way to the end, no matter what the score.

It's unlikely that the latest Heidi will have the impact of its two predecessors, since there is no football game available to be interrupted tonight, and because Temple's stature as perhaps the greatest child actress of all time should survive competition from anyone who reprises any of her classic roles. But the new Heidi is an elaborate and elegant production: a mini-series airing in two parts, beginning at 7 p.m. today and tomorrow on the Disney Channel.

Noley Thornton plays Heidi, with the towering Jason Robards as her grandfather. Filmed in Austria, this Heidi is sweetly sentimental, without ever being cloying or saccharine. Jeanne Rosenberg's script and Michael Rhodes' direction are both sure-handed.

The show begins with the death of Heidi's parents, a tragedy that sadly shapes the subsequent outlook and attitude of Heidi's grandfather Tobias. He wanted to continue to raise only goats on his remote mountain acres; his son wanted to add sheep. So they quarrel and the son runs away during a storm. Lightning knocks down a tree that falls on and kills Heidi's parents, with only the babe surviving.

Heidi is taken away to live with her cousin, Dete Roogen, convincingly portrayed by Jane Hazlegrove, whose only aim in life appears to be to make as much profit as she can off the innocent child. The first major segment of the show begins when Dete, ridding herself of an economic burden, returns the 8- year-old Heidi to live with her reclusive grandfather.

Tobias is ridden by guilt because he drove away his son to his death, but he won't admit that to anyone but himself. So it takes all of Heidi's charm and persistence to melt him down to the point where he accepts and loves her. If you don't find yourself rooting for Heidi through this challenge, perhaps you should have your heart checked to see if it is a stone.

The second major movement of this mini-series comes when the mercenary Dete returns to the mountainside and tells Tobias she has found a fine position for Heidi with a rich family in Frankfurt. There unhappily dwells a 12-year-old girl, Klara Sesemann, portrayed by Lexi Randall, who has been unable to walk since the death of her mother. Heidi is hired to be her cheer-'em-up companion.

A novelty act in this show involves Jane Seymour, currently playing the title role in the CBS series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Although Seymour is best known for sympathetic roles, in Heidi she plays the Sesemann family governess, Fraulein Rottenmeier, a prim-lipped, frosty and thoroughly unsympathetic character. She does it well. If Hollywood ever remakes Mommie Dearest (1981), it's easy to imagine Seymour picking up a coat hanger and stepping confidently into the title role.

Rottenmeier could have been written as a fright figure, but Rosenberg's script chooses to use her for comic relief. Heidi and Klara so easily outwit her that her continual attempts to emotionally restrain them always fail.

The third and pivotal plot turn in this Heidi depends on the question of where Heidi will live. Certainly life in the palatial Sesemann mansion is more comfortable and pampered than existence at Tobias' crude and primitive Alpine cabin. But, as Blaise Pascal wrote three centuries ago, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Tomorrow night's second half of this mini-series centers on Heidi's searching her heart for the answer to where she will dwell.

Heidi is chiefly influenced in her decision by wise old Mary, a blind grandmother who lives a short distance down the mountainside from Tobias' cabin. Patricia Neal enriches the role of Mary with an abundance of warmth and charm that significantly adds to the emotionality of this production.

Others worth saluting in this admirable cast are Benjamin Brazier as a boy named Peter, a goatherd who becomes Heidi's closest friend on the mountain; Andrew Bicknell as Klara's father, Herbert Sesemann, and Basil Hoskins as Sebastian, the Sesemann family butler, who slyly helps the girls escape the restrictive grip of iron maiden Rottenmeier.

Disney's Heidi is the second demonstration on cable TV within a month, following TNT's Frankenstein in June, that classic works of literature endure

because they touch chords in the human spirit that recur in every generation. This isn't Shirley Temple's Heidi, and it certainly isn't "the Heidi game," but it's a story that deserves retelling, and here it has been retold well.

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