Heidi was a literary work I was familiar with, but never quite enthralled with as a child. I had a kids’ version of Johanna Spyri’s classic and knew that it had been adapted into a Shirley Temple film (I probably saw that film at least once…the details are fuzzy). Unfortunately, I came into the world one year too late to see Heidi premiere on the Disney Channel. But thanks to YouTube, I have viewed this beloved miniseries at the grand age of 28. Although it’s over three hours long, Heidi is considered a Disney Channel Premiere Film. It was directed by Michael Ray Rhodes and adapted as a screenplay by Jeanne Rosenberg, who also has a writing credit on Rip Girls!
Spyri’s Heidi book was published in the 1880s, and the story is set in the Alps, as well as Frankfurt, Germany. The cast of Disney Channel’s version is impressive: Jason Robards as the grandfather who accidentally drives his son and daughter-in-law to their deaths (baby Heidi survives); the adorable Noley Thornton as Heidi; Jane Seymour as Fräulein Rottenmeier (Heidi’s boss in Frankfurt); Siân Phillips as Frau Sesemann; and Patricia Neal as Heidi’s grandmother.
We learn early in the film that Heidi has been cared for by a cousin, but now the cousin has to leave for a job — I believe this is an aunt in the book. So up the mountain Heidi goes, to live with her grumpy grandpa. And talk about mountains! This was filmed in Austria, and the scenery is gorgeous. However, the beauty is initially clouded by the grandfather’s resistance toward taking in Heidi. Eventually, this kindhearted little girl softens his heart, but then she has to leave. The cousin returns to usher Heidi away to Frankfurt, where she’s meant to be the companion of a young wheelchair user named Clara Sesemann. There are some very sweet Frankfurt scenes, as Heidi and Clara bond and try not to upset their overseer, Fräulein Rottenmeier. I was struck by the fact that Heidi really misses the mountains. Clara tells her it might be possible to see them from the church, so Heidi hikes all the way up to the bell tower and is dismayed to find no mountains. At least she finds kittens. The older I get, the more I can relate to the gift of connecting with nature. Heidi grasps this at a young age.
Frankfurt becomes sadder and sadder. Even though Heidi’s accommodations are excellent, and she’s staying with a well-off family, she desperately misses her grandfather. Clara has panic attacks and can’t fathom Heidi leaving her, so Clara’s father forces Heidi to stay in Frankfurt to the point where Heidi becomes very sick. Finally, Heidi is granted a one-month recess to the mountains, provided that she return to the Sesemanns’ home afterwards. It takes her grandfather a little while to warm up to Heidi again — and they were doing so well before she left the Alps! He had given her a handmade blanket and a wood carving of the mystical woman on the mountain. Heidi’s grandmother is overjoyed to see her again, even though the woman is in her last days. The Sesemanns come to visit Heidi and breathe in the clean mountain air, intending to take her back to Frankfurt.
The hardest thing to watch for me, right up there with Heidi’s parents dying, is when a local boy named Peter angrily pushes Clara’s wheelchair and accidentally throws it down the mountain, destroying the chair. I’m not sure if this plays out the same way in the book, but by using her strength to venture back up the mountain on a homemade sled with Heidi and Peter, Clara can miraculously walk again. This plot point might be approached differently today. Thankfully, Heidi gets to stay in the Alps with her family. You can see that she’s torn; she loves Clara, but she knows she belongs with her grandfather. This is such a human reaction — to want to be in more than one place at once, especially because of the people we love.
After poking around on Disney Channel corners of the Internet and hearing word about Heidi for a while, I’m glad to have finally watched it. I honestly can’t picture something like this on Disney Channel nowadays, but I think people would really love to have it on Disney+.