Rip Torn, Mara Wilson Help Keep Disney's 'Balloon Farm' Aloft


Rip Torn and "Matilda's" Mara Wilson are two reasons to tune in Sunday to "The Wonderful World of Disney's" bit of froth, "Balloon Farm."

Torn, light years away from his brilliant "Larry Sanders Show" role as dark, manipulative Artie, is the substance in this pleasant but otherwise inch-deep family movie. Softening that hawkish Artie glint into crinkly-eyed goodwill, Torn plays mysterious Harvey Potter, who, with a touch of rainbow-colored magic, changes the lives of some farmers plagued by drought. He's ably complemented by Wilson as spunky, pure-of-heart Willow.

Based on the children's book "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm," by Jerdine Nolen (Steven M. Karczynski wrote the teleplay), the tall tale--with shades of "Peter Pan" and "The Rainmaker"--has a message: "It isn't always what you see, it's what you believe."

At first, the farmers embrace that message when they see Potter, overnight, raise a very odd crop indeed: balloons on cornstalks.

The farmers, facing either bank foreclosure or selling short to land developers, are so charmed they pay 10 bucks apiece for the balloons of their choice. The happy colors and the miraculous way they grow are symbols of hope, says Casey Johnson (Laurie Metcalf), and her neighbors agree, especially when the balloons themselves seem to have unusual powers.

But sour old farmer Wheezle (Roberts Blossom) is suspicious, and the drought continues. And when Potter, who can also make a pecan pie with just one pecan and a pot of coffee with one coffee bean, is seemingly exposed as a fraud, the town turns against him, bitterly preparing to sell out. All except Willow.

Director William Dear has gold in Torn, but goes for cartoonish, superficial performances from most of the cast--and doesn't give the always fine Metcalf enough to do. Fortunately, he allows Wilson to be her refreshingly real kid self and put her heart into the role.

* "Balloon Farm," Sunday, 7 p.m., ABC. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).

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