Timing is everything, especially when a feature film is released. When Hanna-Barbera released "Heidi's Song" in 1982 through Paramount, family films had become more edgy and sophisticated, while this warmhearted musical was something that might have been more widely embraced in the mid-60s, when "The Sound of Music" was a Hollywood smash.
It's very possible that Hanna-Barbera had "Heidi's Song" in the production pipeline for many years, assigning artists to it between TV series projects. Apparently it was a difficult film for Hanna-Barbera to complete. I recall a 1982 cover story in Millimeter Magazine in which director Robert Taylor (DuckTales, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Men in Black: The Series) was attached to the film and some of it had to be redone.
Hanna and Barbera were clearly hoping for a Disney-type classic that would perhaps live on as an example of what they could do with the right amount of money and time. "Heidi's Song" really does show a lot more loving care -- and a much higher frame rate resulting in above-average animation fluidity by HB standards -- than most of their TV animation of the 70s and early 80s.
Story must have been a challenge, too, but William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, director Taylor and co-writer Jameson Brewer gave it their best shot. Like so many children's tales, Heidi may not have had enough plot to sustain an animated feature in the Disney tradition. So, like Disney, the filmmakers came up with many clever ways to keep things moving and add to the plot, including subplots with dogs and cats -- which are, of course, Hanna-Barbera specialties.
Among the film's biggest strengths is its score. Anyone who appreciates fine movie or show music will want to play this DVD on a stereo system to fully appreciate the scope of the music of Burton Lane (Finian's Rainbow) with lyrics by Sammy Cahn (Disney's Peter Pan, among many others). This is also the only major HB feature film arranged and conducted by house musical director Hoyt Curtin. It's a joy to hear what he could do with a gigantic orchestra and chorus (including Hollywood's best singers including Gene Merlino and BJ Baker).
There are so many songs, though, that some of them advance the plot ("A Christmas-sy Day," for example, covers the time in which Heidi adjusts to mountain life and bonds with her Grandfather), while others suspend the story. These are delightful, but not always crucial to the story. As Disneylike at "Heidi's Song" is, the film has roughly twice the amount of songs and musical set pieces than the average Disney fairy tale feature.
By the way, the box claims that there are 16 original songs and there are indeed 16 musical "segments," but some are reprises and instrumentals, as I have noted here:
Overture (Orchestra & Chorus)
Good at Making Friends
Heidi's Nightmare (Orchestra)
A Christmas-sy Day
An Armful of Sunshine
She's a Nothing
An Armful of Sunshine (reprise)
Monkey Theme (Orchestra)
An Unkind Word
That's What Friends Are For
Ode to a Rat
End Title, including "Wunderhorn" (Orchestra & Chorus)
The voice cast is not star studded, but rather filled with the superstars of Hanna-Barbera and cartoons in general -- like Janet Waldo, Michael Bell, Joan Gerber, Pamelyn Ferdin, Fritz Feld, Frank Welker and others. Stage star Margery Gray (the wife of Fliddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick) voices Heidi.
On the celebrity side, Lorne Greene bellows nicely as Grandfather and Sammy Davis Jr. brings the film to an even higher level with the excellent "Ode to a Rat," a spectacular example of design, animation and especially the dazzling brass section so associated with Hanna-Barbera TV theme songs.
The rat sequence near the film's end, as well as the nightmare sequence near the beginning, could be scary for the very young children. Therein lies the dilemma with films like Heidi's Song, Annie and others with a primary appeal for girls but not for boys. Knowing this, HB's team added the darker moments as well as the dog, cat, and monkey mayhem. This only makes it harder to decide if Heidi's Song works for everyone.
It sure does for me, because I loved it when Hanna-Barbera reached higher than the usual level of TV animation. Personally, I think "Charlotte's Web" was their crowning achievement in theatrical films, but each one is a fascinating experience.
"Heidi's Song" makes a particularly great listening experience. The 1982 K-Tel soundtrack album, released on vinyl, was a story record that emphasized dialogue and edited the music. A full-fledged musical soundtrack album was not released.
Now that this DVD is available, it's like having a soundtrack album. Okay, the movie can be as sticky as microwaved Jujubees, but c'mon now, that "Wunderhorn" tune is pretty magnificent in full stereo! Maybe if this DVD-R does well enough, the picture can be fully restored for Blu-ray.