'Heidi': Film Review

Heidi Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Walt Disney/StudioCanal
A familiar crowdpleaser is back.

Zurich-born Alain Gsponer directed the latest film adaptation of one of Swiss kid lit's most famous protagonists in this film that's been conquering Europe.

With some 50 million copies in print, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi is probably the biggest Swiss bestseller of all time. So it’s not a surprise there have been many film adaptations, ranging from a 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle to countless other live-action and animated incarnations, including several Japanese anime films and even a Hanna-Barbera-produced feature. The latest to join the ranks, directed by Zurich-born director Alain Gsponer, is a live-action, German-language feature that’s simply titled Heidi as well.

That the world was ready for a yet another version of this old-fashioned, goody-two-shoes tale about a young girl growing up in the Alps with her initially grumpy grandfather — played by Bruno Ganz, the man who played Hitler in Downfall (and the million Internet memes it spawned) — is corroborated by Heidi’s impressive box-office numbers. The classically fashioned feel-good feature made over $15.5 million in Germany and Switzerland alone, where the film was released over the Christmas holidays by StudioCanal and the Walt Disney Company, respectively. Even more impressive are the foreign numbers, with the film now raking in millions as a spring release for kids in Italy and France (not generally territories where German-language children’s films stand any chance). 

Gsponer’s incarnation, written for the screen by Italo-Swiss screenwriter Petra Biondina Volpe, follows the basic structure of the 1881 novel as it follows 5-year-old orphan and curly brunette Heidi (cute yet down-to-earth Anuk Steffen, actually 10 when the film was shot). She’s shipped off by her stern aunt, Dete (Anna Schinz), to her grumpy, don’t-waste-any-words grandfather (Ganz), who lives alone in a small cabin high up in the Swiss Alps. To say he’s not pleased to see his solitary routine in the tranquil mountain air upset by a curious little girl who needs looking after is an understatement. But even for those who’ve not read the book — or rather two books, now often combined into one volume — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the winsome little girl will soon manage to melt Granddad’s icy little Alpine heart.

This is also a plot necessity, since Heidi will need to start to feel homesick when she’s whisked away at age 8 to worldly Frankfurt, where her aunt Dete has found her a place in a very chic household as a companion to a wheelchair-bound child, Klara (Isabelle Ottmann), who doesn’t get out much. As in the novel, the pic plays Heidi’s initial fish-out-of-the-water situation for comedy, since, as a rough-and-tumble county girl, she has no idea about things as basic as cutlery or clean clothes.

Though no one would mistake these slapstick-y scenes for high art, Gsponer displays more directorial finesse here than in his previous children’s film from the same producers, 2013’s The Little Ghost. That said, and somewhat oddly, an interlude in Heidi actually involving a ghost (which comes straight from the novel) is not properly set up in terms of its tone nor ever adequately tied in with the film’s overall themes. In this midsection, the girls’ strict governess (Katharina Schuettler, borderline too broad) gets some of the biggest laughs, while some much-needed matronly attention comes from Klara’s grandmother (Hannelore Hoger, in a dignified cameo).

Further making Heidi homesick in late 1800s Frankfurt — neatly recreated by production designer Christian M. Goldbeck (The Edukators, Krabat) — is the fact she misses not only Grandpa but also her cute goat herder friend, Peter (Quirin Agrippi). Needless to say, when she does get to see him again, he’s not impressed with her newfound city-slicker manners. Indeed, throughout the movie, Gsponer keeps contrasting different elements, including the seasons, the city and the country and even characters, such as the dark-haired and earthy Heidi and the alabaster-skinned and fair-haired city girl Klara. These natural contrasts and Niki Reiser's pastoral, old-school score help give a sense of unity to a plot that’s otherwise not always smoothly laid out and starts to drag especially in the latter reels. 

As perhaps a sign of the times, the novel’s religious message and allusions seem to have been replaced to an extent by an emphasis on the benefits of healthy country living. Young kids will nonetheless eat this up, while more demanding arthouse patrons in search of spectacular Swiss scenery or calm can always go back for another viewing of Clouds of Sils Maria or Youth.

Production companies: Claussen Woebke Putz Filmproduktion, Zodiac Pictures International, Studiocanal, Teleclub, SRF
Cast: Anuk Steffen, Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Ottmann, Quirin Agrippi, Katharina Schuettler, Hannelore Hoger, Maxim Mehmet, Peter Lohmeyer, Anna Schinz, Jella Haasse 
Director: Alain Gsponer
Screenplay: Petra Biondina Volpe, based on the novel by Johanna Spyri
Producers: Jakob Claussen, Lukas Hobi, Ulrike Putz, Reto Schaerli
Director of photography: Matthias Fleischer
Production designer: Christian M. Goldbeck
Costume designer: Anke Winckler
Editor: Mike Schaerer
Music: Niki Reiser
Casting: Corinna Glaus, Daniela Tolkien

Sales: Studiocanal

Not rated, 106 minutes