Charlie Sheen as ‘Goat’ Peter!! If like me you’re a fan of Johanna Spyri’s Swiss mountain girl Heidi and her myriad film and TV incarnations, then the previous sentence won’t instil much confidence in this curious sequel. An original story conceived by Fred and Mark Brogger and written by Weaver Webb (the sole film credit for all three), Courage Mountain is set in 1915, several years on from Spyri’s novel, amidst the First World War. Plucky Swiss miss Heidi (Juliette Caton) is forced to leave her mountain cabin, beloved grandfather (Jan Rubes), and best friend Peter (snicker - Charlie Sheen - chortle), and attend an Italian finishing school run by kindly Miss Jane Hillary (Leslie Caron). Soldiers commandeer the school for their barracks, leaving Miss Hillary is powerless when her girls are bundled off to a grim orphanage, which is really a workhouse run by the cruel Signor and Signora Bonelli (Yorgo Voyagis and Laura Betti). Heidi rebels and leads the other girls: Ursula (Joanna Clarke), Ilsa (Nicola Stapleton), Clarissa (Jade Magri) and Gudrun (Kathryn Ludlow) in their escape to Switzerland, while nasty Signor Bonelli pursues.
Recent years have seen a pleasing resurgence in quality children’s movies. Courage Mountain came out a time when most involved videogames or Macaulay Culkin smacking people over the head with a baseball bat. As such, while no substitute for Spyri’s heartwarming novel, there is something very likeable about its celebration of friendship, family and fortitude. Even when Sheen suggests the girls lift their spirits with a song - you laugh at first, but smile as Heidi croons a Christmas carol and the children huddle beside a campfire. Scenes at the girls’ school where Heidi struggles with class prejudice, remain truest to the spirit of Spyri’s novel. Leslie Caron delivers the most engaging performance as the outwardly prim, but good hearted headmistress. “Accept other people and their differences”, she tells Heidi. “Learn from them and grow.” The veteran musical star seems to be having great fun during her big pillow fight.
Later scenes try to shoehorn the material into action-adventure mode, something Johanna Spyri’s Heidi is most definitely not. Nonetheless there is some good stuff here: the girls trapped in a war zone where bombs explode and bullets fly, only to emerge the next morning, blackened and weary, surrounded by dead soldiers; Peter skiing to the rescue like James Bond; and Heidi bonding the girls together to pull everyone to safety. Cinematographer Jacques Steyn bathes the forest in idyllic light and captures beautiful alpine scenery from Northern Italy. As Heidi, Juliette Caton (who played the devil in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)) shows some pleasing grit amidst the roach-ridden, disease infested orphanage, but is otherwise over-earnest and a tad bland. The other girls are sprightly and likeable, particularly Nicola Stapleton - a familiar face on British TV - and plucky, little Jade Magri. There is a funny scene where, hidden in the back of a cart, the girls gape aghast as a delivery man romances a comely milkmaid, and a nice narrative tweak has the most snobby girl turn out to be the one most in need of Heidi’s compassion.
Charlie Sheen is fairly ridiculous and it’s slightly creepy watching the twenty-something star romance an adolescent girl - if, given his reputation, not implausible. Sadly, we don’t get to see him in full lederhosen and cocked hat ensemble, but Sheen takes a simple line like: “Wow. Heidi, you look incredible” and makes it sound like the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.
Things go all Christmassy for the warm finale, with log fires, homemade decorations, gingerbread and smiling kiddies singing carols. It’s all rather sweet, but purists will prefer the 1978 Swiss/German television series with Katia Polletin.