“Heidi,” the classic children’s novel, has finally been told on the screen the way it should be: not as fluffy Pollyanna but as a thoughtful, shaded tale of love, abandonment and reunion. It’s been done as a four-hour miniseries, airing at 7 p.m. Sunday and Monday on the Disney Channel.
Featuring Jason Robards as Heidi’s bitter grandfather and the exceptionally cast Noley Thornton as the orphaned title character in search of a home amid the splendor of the Austrian Alps, this fifth “Heidi” movie from the beloved 1881 novel by Johanna Spyri is much truer to the book than the other “Heidi” movies, including the goldilocked 1937 Shirley Temple version.
Now the story is not so much a children’s tale as a drama for all ages, with finely textured performances from a vivid supporting cast, which includes Patricia Neal as the blind grandmother who teaches Heidi to be herself, Lexi Randall as the rich, wheelchair-bound Frankfurt girl who finds the strength to let go of Heidi, and, in quite a casting departure, a pinched-faced Jane Seymour as the overbearing German housekeeper with the wonderfully apt name of Fraulein Rottenmeier.
Shot in “Sound of Music” country and in Salzburg, Austria, the teleplay by Jeanne Rosenberg balances a penetrating character study of an 8-year-old Heidi tossed from one relative to another with an unusually dark portrait of her reclusive grandfather living among the clouds high in the Alps.
Thornton (who is 10) reminds you of still waters that run deep. And Robards (as yet another white-bearded curmudgeon, following his priceless Disney Channel performance as Samuel Clemens in the 1991 “Mark Twain and Me”) equally conveys depths of complexity in utter silence. Together they will bring mist to your eyes as they overcome emotional distances in a battered log cabin on a majestic mountainside.