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Blanchard's the biggest problem
The first season of the TV version of the hit movie reassembled a good chunk of the movie's cast, plus the movie's director Amy Heckerling as executive producer. So why was it such a pale imitation? Two words: Rachel Blanchard.
Blanchard took over as lead character Cher from Alicia Silverstone (who understandably had other things to do at the time). Though Blanchard was physically right for the role, her flat performance makes you realize how perfect Silverstone really was for the role, with her fizzy, lighthearted, charismatic performance. Blanchard, by contrast, was dull as dishwater, with no spunk or charisma or anything. She pulled the whole series down. They should have hired Christine Taylor (Marcia in "The Brady Bunch" movies) instead.
The second season got even worse. Moving to a smaller network (from ABC to UPN) necessitated budget cuts, so Heckerling was gone as well as movie vets Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan. "Very special episodes" started to creep in as well. Ugh.
Skip this one and rent the movie again instead.
Return from Witch Mountain (1978)
Pale sequel; stick to the original
"Escape to Witch Mountain" is not a perfect movie, but has a good plot, well-developed characters, and beautiful scenery. "Return from Witch Mountain", unfortunately, has none of those. In this contrived sequel, Tony and Tia are left to fend for themselves while on vacation in Los Angeles (all the better to save on the budget!), where they become mixed up with a mad scientist (Christopher Lee), his partner (Bette Davis), and various other Disney stock characters. What charms the original had are completely absent from this sequel, which seems to borrow every cliché from the scores of middling-to-bad Disney movies which littered the movie landscape in the 1970s.
Much of the dialog is cringe-worthy; you'll actually be embarrassed watching it. You're better off re-watching the original.
Snoopy Come Home (1972)
The best of the Peanuts flicks
This melancholy entry in the Peanuts quadrilogy stands out among the four, simply because of the difference in tone from the other entries. "Race for Your Life" is much lighter in tone, while "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown" is more shallow. "Snoopy, Come Home" is the most memorable because of its unusual depth, as well as the bittersweet themes that it touches on: friendship; loyalty; and partings of the way.
The plot, in a nutshell: Snoopy's former owner is sick, and calls him to her side. Snoopy makes a cross-country journey, and is then torn between staying with his former owner, who needs him, and returning to the place he considers home.
Though the animation is still fairly simple here, it's a notch above the usual Peanuts movies and specials - check out the beautiful backgrounds of the beach scenes, or the wonderful palettes displayed as Snoopy and Woodstock travel at sunset. Really striking, and different from what we usually see in the Peanuts stories.
The real mixed bag here is the music. This was the first Peanuts project that did not features a score by the brilliant Vince Guaraldi. Instead, the Sherman brothers of Disney fame provide the songs, several of which are sung by the characters (in contrast to Guaraldi's usual instrumentals). Some of these songs are quite good, like Fundamentalfriendependability, the song sung by a girl who captures Snoopy when he is en route. Others, like Snoopy and Woodstock's "Me and You" theme, are pure early 70s (think The Association) and unfortunately date the movie.
The voice work is generally good, unlike the more recent Peanuts entries where sounding somewhat like the original voices doesn't seem to be a prerequisite. Stephen Shea as Linus sounds almost exactly like older brother Chris, the original, definitive Linus who grew out of the role. The one weak voice is Charlie himself, whose voice is different enough from his predecessors to be distracting.
But these are nitpicks. The strength and depth of the story itself is more than enough to make up for the few weaknesses. For whatever reason, this is rerun less than the later two Peanuts movies, so seek it out on DVD - you won't be disappointed. And if you're softhearted, be sure to have a handkerchief handy.
Spencer's Mountain (1963)
Stick with "The Waltons"
Based on the same source material that was used for the TV series "The Waltons", "Spencer's Mountain" is cornier, shallower, and quite a bit duller than its television counterpart. The basic setup is the same - a poor but proud man lives with his churchgoing wife, his elderly parents, and a multitude of children, including an intellectual eldest son who aspires to go to college. However, this movie takes place in the present day, though (1963 at the time), and the action, what little there is, is moved from Virginia to gorgeous Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Enjoy the scenery, because it's probably the best thing about the film.
Unlike the series, the characterizations are not nearly as well fleshed out. Other than the eldest son (here named Clay Boy instead of John Boy), none of the children are given much to do. The grandparents are ciphers as well. Also, it's difficult to make lovely Maureen O'Hara unappealing, but this movie somehow manages - she plays the clan's shrewish, nagging mother, who lavishes most of her attention on her "special" eldest son. Even worse is Henry Fonda as the patriarch, who is prone to spewing corny, down-home platitudes and creepily refers to his "babies".
Sure, "The Waltons" had its corny side as well, but the early seasons can be surprisingly gritty at times. "Spencer's Mountain" will just make your teeth ache. Skip it.
Killing Mr. Griffin (1997)
Adequate, but read the book instead
Poor Lois Duncan. She's written many good-to-excellent thrillers aimed at the teen set, but their video adaptations almost never do them justice. "I Know What You Did Last Summer" was turned into a teen slasher flick; "Gallows Hill" was butchered into "I've Been Waiting for You", and "Don't Look Behind You" (one of Duncan's best, about a girl whose family enters Witness Relocation) was turned into a vehicle for "Dallas" has-been Patrick Duffy! Only "Summer of Fear", aka "Stranger in Our House", managed to survive intact (though you still have to put up with the dog/horse plot switch, as well as Linda Blair's scary perm).
The "Killing Mr. Griffin" movie, sad to say, is a middling effort, not at all worthy of the excellent source material. Most of the characters survive the transition to the screen, but are watered down and robbed of their distinctive traits. Mr. Griffin himself, a well-meaning guy who has trouble relating to kids in the book, is simply a jerk here. But worse is what happens to Mark Kinney. In the book, it is slowly and frighteningly revealed that Mark is actually a sociopath, whose history of violence and ability bend the group to his will is even more troubling than what happens to Mr. Griffin. But in the movie, Mark is just another troubled kid who is reacting to the pressure his parents have put on him to succeed. Too bad, because his original incarnation is much, much scarier.
If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it, as well as the other books I've mentioned above. It would be a much better use of your time.
Disappointing final chapter to the "Recess" series
Production shut down on ABC's "Recess" series after it reached 65 episodes, as is mandated by producer Disney. But "Recess" proved to be so popular that an additional 13 episodes were commissioned. For some reason, though, ABC never broadcast the new episodes and they were instead edited into three direct-to-video movies. This entry, comprised of three episodes loosely joined together, finds the "Recess" gang finally being promoted to the fifth grade. But it seems they've lost some of their magic with the change in grades. First of all, there are distracting problems with character voices. Courtland Mead (Gus) and Jason Davis (Mikey) don't quite sound like they usually do, and Myles Jeffrey has replaced Andrew Lawrence as TJ (Lawrence's voice was sounding pretty deep in the final episodes of the series, so this change is understandable). Jeffrey is OK, although he hasn't captured TJ's spunk the same way that Lawrence did. The real problem, though, is that the stories just seem...tired. The first, in which TJ becomes a truant to protest changes at school, is simply boring. The last one, in which Spinelli decides she is too old for Halloween, seems like a rehash of previous stories. Only the middle entry, in which the kids join a secret club, comes close to the series' standards. Fans of the series will understandably want to catch up with their favorite characters, but this movie may make them realize why all good things must come to an end.
Best of the 80s Waltons reunions
This is the best of the three "Waltons" TV movies that were filmed the year following the series' cancellation. This installment finds the family members dealing with various personal issues and starting to go their separate ways, much to the alarm of youngest sibling Elizabeth, who wants to see them all reunited to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Unlike some of the other "Waltons" movies, none of these personal problems are overly dramatic or come across as major crises. Instead, the script focuses on small issues, which is what the original series did so well. Among the subplots: Erin's new husband, Paul, is feeling smothered by her family; John-Boy is suffering writers' block; Jason ponders whether he should leave the mountain to pursue a music career.
If there are any problem with this movie, it's that a few cast members from the series are absent. Robert Wightman fills in as John-Boy, as he did in the last few years of the series, but it's tough to forget Richard Thomas, who created the role. Michael Learned is again absent as matriarch Olivia, who's still recuperating in an Arizona sanitarium from what must be the world's toughest case of TB. Learned is really missed here -- the show is never the same when she's not around.
Still, the theme of everyone coming together for Thanksgiving is a good one, and it's always fun to see the wonderful character actors playing the Walton's friends and neighbors, such as the Godseys, Yancy Tucker, and the Baldwin sisters. The final scene is pleasantly nostalgic and provides some nice closure, as we won't see the Walton family for another 11 years.
A Walton Wedding (1995)
If you liked the last reunion, you'll like this one
The second of the three 1990s reunions for "The Waltons" TV series finds the Virginia mountain clan preparing for eldest son John-Boy's wedding in 1964. This time around, the writers wisely avoid trying to give subplots to each of the now-grown Walton children (most of these former child actors are now much less natural on-camera) and sticks to members of the family who can carry a story: John-Boy (Richard Thomas), John (Ralph Waite), and Olivia (Michael Learned). While the wedding preparations are going on, budding feminist Olivia enrolls in college and finds some prejudice against older students, while county commissioner John is caught in the middle of a minor scandal when he's forced to vote on a project in which the Walton lumber mill has an interest.
The script is less sappy than the last time-around, but there are also far fewer cameos from all the Waltons' friends and neighbors, which is a bit of a shame. Also, Richard Thomas wears a distracting pageboy hairdo which looks completely out of place for the early 60s, and Michael Learned seems to have lost some of the warmth that made Olivia such a wonderful character in the series (at one point, she refers to a fellow student as a "twit"!). The usually-wonderful Holland Taylor seems out of place on the mountain as the meddling aunt of John-Boy's bride-to-be.
But these are nitpicks. This is a solid effort that will entertain even casual fans of the original series.
Return to Mayberry (1986)
Fans of the series will be pleased
This update of the old "Andy Griffith Show" is one of the better reunions of the many that popped up in the 1980s. No fewer than 16 actors who appeared in the original series are present, including Ron Howard, who by this time had gone on to much bigger and better things as the director of many hit feature films.
The plot finds former Mayberry sheriff Andy Taylor and his wife Helen returning to town for the birth of son Opie's first child. Perennial second-banana (and Andy's former deputy) Barney Fife is now running for sheriff, the job he always wanted. But it turns out that Andy wants his old job back, too. This unspoken conflict and the selfless efforts by Andy and Barney to resolve it are very touching.
There's a silly subplot about alleged sightings of a monster in the town lake that detracts from the proceedings. And some of the continuity from the sequel "Mayberry RFD" series isn't followed. But what you really want is to see how these old friends and neigbors are doing, and to feel some nostalgia. And on these two points, "Return to Mayberry" doesn't disappoint.
Acceptable TV-movie reunion
A seemingly ageless Barbara Eden reprises her role from the 60s sitcom as a genial genie married to her mortal astronaut master. Jeannie, who seems to have discovered women's lib since we last saw her, is anxiously awaiting husband Tony's retirement from the space program, so he can be at home more to help her raise their teenaged son, TJ. But Tony's agreement to undertake one more space mission threatens their marriage, and even his life.
The script tends toward corny, and Larry Hagman is missed as Tony Nelson (Wayne Rogers from "M*A*S*H" fills in). And the ending makes the whole thing smell like a failed pilot to revive the series. Still, there are some nice nostalgic moments with Eden, Bill Daily (as Tony's best friend, Roger), and Hayden Rorke as the always-suspicious Dr. Bellows.