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I love cartoons. I grew up on animated shorts and feature-length films from Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., and MGM. Most were made before 1979, the year I was born. Thanks to re-runs on Saturday mornings, I received an education in mouse chasing from Tom, wisecracking from Bugs Bunny, and mystery solving from Scooby and the Gang. I have fond memories of new prime-time animated specials that you simply couldn’t miss. Remember, this was before VCR’s were affordable and DVR was something right out of The Jetsons. One of my strongest memories was seeing the premiere of the 1987 Rankin and Bass production of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. But for every clear memory there are a hundred fuzzy ones. There are TV shows and movies I have vague recollections of, but can’t remember specific details or when I saw them.
Enter Hanna-Barbera’s Heidi’s Song.
Released theatrically nationwide in 1982, Heidi’s Song didn’t do well at the box office, but has maintained a loyal following over the past 30 years. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but when I discovered Heidi’s Song was coming to DVD via Warner Archive, I had to watch it again.
Heidi’s Song is an animated musical based on the beloved children’s story Heidi, written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. Orphaned since a baby, Heidi (voiced by Margery Gray) is under the care of her maternal Aunt Dete (Virginia Gregg). After 4 years, Aunt Dete begins to grow tired of caring for Heidi, and decides to take her to live with her paternal grandfather. Heidi’s grandfather (voiced by Lorne Greene) lives high up in the mountains and is known to be grumpy and reclusive. At first he is cold to Heidi, but she starts to wear down his gruff exterior. Before long, Grandfather is completely smitten with the sweet little girl. To Heidi and Grandfather’s dismay, Aunt Dete returns and insists that Heidi go to live with a wealthy family as a companion to their disabled daughter. Grandfather objects, but eventually decides to send Heidi away thinking it will be best for her. When Heidi arrives at her new home, she is greeted with open arms by Klara, who is confined to a wheelchair. Klara’s governess Fraulein Rottenmeier (what a name for a villian!) is displeased with Heidi’s appearance and uncultured upbringing. Klara manages to convince Rottenmeier to let Heidi stay. After several mishaps, Rottenmeier confines Heidi to a dark basement filled with rats. Although Heidi befriends many of the rats, their leader King Ratte (Sammy Davis, Jr.) turns them against her with a song and dance number. Heidi escapes King Ratte’s tiny rat-paw clutches and convinces Klara to travel with her back to the mountains to live with Grandfather.
The animation in Heidi’s Song is outstanding. As impressive as today’s computer generated animation is, it cannot compare to the high quality hand-drawn images found in so many animated classics. The “Nightmare Ballet” sequence is spectacular with its bright colored monsters, swirling shadows, and demonic creatures. Animation aside, the story is a significantly watered-down version of Spyri’s classic. Sammy Cahn and Burton Lane composed 16 original songs for the film, including the toe-tapping jazz number “Ode to a Rat”, sung by none other than Sammy Davis, Jr. The musical numbers are enjoyable, but feel as if they were tacked on as an afterthought. The Davis number is one of the best scenes, but it’s inconsistent with the rest of the film. Oh well, it’s Sammy Davis, Jr. He’s allowed to come and go as he damn well pleases, thank you very much. Although not Hanna-Barbera’s best, Heidi’s Song is enjoyable, especially to this child of the ’80s. When my daughter is a bit older, I’m sure she will enjoy it too.
Heidi’s Song is a manufactured on demand (MOD) disc with no special features. The film is struck from the best available source material. The video transfer is crisp, as it should be with an animated feature. The audio track is equally good.
Full disclosure: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a copy of Heidi’s Song directly from Warner Archive.