Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Every Great Writer Will One Day Meet The Single Great Subject That Will Define Them Forever. For Mary McNamara That Subject Is - Heidi 4 Paws

When Mary McNamara was unexpectedly 'demoted' from the book review section to reviewing... TV shows.... it seemed that a great writing career was suddenly stillborn.

Well... not necessarily the case. Because you can peruse the annals of literature from the Greeks onward and never find the opportunities that lie in critiquing.... "Heidi 4 Paws".

Review: 'Heidi 4 Paws'
Let's pause to reflect on the effect of dressed-up dogs retelling the beloved orphan-in-the-Alps tale.
Television Critic

December 20, 2008

There is nothing in this life to prepare a person to review “Heidi 4 Paws,” which premieres on KCET Sunday morning.

When my editor handed it to me with a gleam in her eye, she said: "It's Heidi. With dogs." I was confused. Did Heidi Klum have a new reality show involving dogs? Had Heidi Montag snagged a canine Christmas special?

"No, it's the story 'Heidi.' With dogs."

I began to feel bovine in my incomprehension. "Heidi" with dogs instead of goats?

"No, the dogs play all the characters."

Including, it must be added, the goats.

And there it is. "Heidi 4 Paws" is a live-action retelling of Johanna Spyri’s classic tale of an orphan sent to live with her cantankerous grandfather high in the Swiss Alps -- with dogs in all the roles. Dogs in kerchiefs and Swiss frocks, dogs in alpine hats and canine approximations of lederhosen, dogs in wigs and spectacles and, yes, little Clara's wheelchair.

Having said that, we can now watch as the world instantly divides. Into those who find dogs in dress-up charming and adorable and those who consider it a crime against the natural order of things. If you are a member of the former group, then this is the film for you. The costumes are exquisite, the dogs wear them well.

Some of us, however, fall into the latter category. I have nothing against live-action animal films -- I think "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" cleaned up at the box office simply because it was a darn good movie -- but I believe the only person who should put clothing on dogs is William Wegman, and then not always.

It's a difficult prejudice to put aside in this case, especially since the poor mutt playing Miss Rottenmeier is forced to wear shoes -- shoes! -- but it is a prejudice not shared by everyone, and so we move on.

"Heidi 4 Paws" is the dreamchild of successful screenwriter Holly Goldberg Sloan ("Angels in the Outfield," "Made in America"), which explains the name talent, including Angela Lansbury, Steve Guttenberg and Julian Sands, who provide some of the voices. Sloan, as she recently blogged on the Huffington Post, spent the last five years melding her twin obsessions with dogs and "Heidi."

This answers the first wild-eyed question that springs to mind when "Heidi 4 Paws" opens with three dogs on a train. Why on Earth would anyone think to do this? Not, apparently, to create an instant camp classic, although this may be the end result, but because she wanted to make a children's film incorporating her twin obsessions with dogs and "Heidi." Next question.

And there are many more, including why do Detie (Joanne Baron) and Grandpapa (Richard Kind) sound like they are from Long Island and Brooklyn, respectively? Was it really necessary to have the doggy versions of Peter the Goatherder (Sands) and Heidi (Meghan Strange) yodel? How come the "goats" look like little Martians, and will plush versions of them be available in time for Christmas? What is it about Angela Lansbury's voice that makes even a dog in a Grandmama wig seem comforting and wise?

There are things to recommend "Heidi 4 Paws" (honestly, I cannot write this title often enough) beyond the obvious you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it appeal.

On Huffington, Sloan apologizes for the "homemade" appearance of the dogs' moving mouths, but the special effects, though not up to feature film standards, are pretty good. Though clearly not filmed on location, the production value all around is high.

Sloan's script, meanwhile, is very smart, a faithful retelling of the "Heidi" tale down to the devotion to goat's milk and cheese, yet with enough snappy modern flourishes to temper the saccharine tone of the original and keep young audiences watching. "Why do you have nothing?" asks the Grandpapa when Heidi arrives on his doorstep. "Maybe because I'm an orphan?" she answers. It's a great line, and the yellow lab puppy playing Heidi really nails it.

Still there is a definite homespun quality to "Heidi 4 Paws," a let's-put-on-a-show jocularity to much of the dialogue and its delivery, which is both charming and slightly off-putting, as if the viewer had just opened the wrong door at a party and found the talented but undeniably eccentric sister sitting on the floor playing dress-up with her dogs.

You see how difficult this is to explain. Best watch it for yourself. I guarantee you've never seen anything like it on television. And these days, that's saying something.

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