Heidi, Girl of the Alps Anime Review
Arupusu no Shoujo Haiji
Heidi, Girl of the Alps
US Release By
Children's Period Drama
52 23-minute episodes
1974-01-06 - 1974-12-29
This is the story of Heidi, a five year old girl living in the Swiss Alps, orphaned as an infant and raised by her aunt Dete. When Dete finds work elsewhere, she takes Heidi to live with her Grandfather, a hermit who lives alone on a mountain with only two goats and an old dog for company. Heidi's innocence softens her Grandfather's heart, and she finds adventures every day up on the mountain with the poor goatherd Peter. But, eventually, Heidi is taken to live with a rich family in Frankfurt as the companion of a wheelchair-bound girl, Clara. Heidi struggles to keep up her spirits in the strict confines of a proper city household, and perhaps to bring joy to Clara as well.
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Heidi, Girl of the Alps is a simply wonderful series in the most literal sense--simple in its portrayal of nature both grand and small and the details of everyday life, and filled with the wonder to be found in all of those things when seen through the fresh, innocent eyes of Heidi. Though it is a children's series, it is just as enjoyable to an adult viewer because its world is detailed and realistic, and it allows the viewer to see this world through Heidi's eyes.
Progressing unhurriedly through its considerable length, Heidi nonetheless never becomes the slightest bit boring, because of its richness. It boasts likable characterization, gorgeous art, exquisite character animation, memorable music, and masterful directing. The series is a masterwork from beginning to end, and comes with the highest recommendation for both children and anyone who might enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of a child again.
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Heidi, Girl of the Alps is a story that has been adored by countless people around the world for over a century. This animated adaptation is, unlike many others, an artistic achievement worthy of being the quintessential interpretation, faithfully capturing the simple beauty and pure heart of the original. Guaranteed to delight young children, it also holds some hidden magic that makes it a pleasure to watch even for adults.
Heidi is a simply wonderful series. I mean that phrase quite literally; It is simple in its portrayal of nature both grand and small, the details of life, normal folk, and everyday events. And it is filled with the wonder to be found in all of those things when seen through the fresh, innocent eyes of Heidi.
That, more than anything, is how this series works its magic; it presents its world and story in a straightforward, unadorned, unexaggerated way, letting the images and characters speak for themselves. It then lets the viewer see this world through the eyes of a child who finds joy and wonder in the smallest of things. And, by experiencing these bygone times and rare, beautiful places through eyes untainted by adulthood and the modern world, even an adult can enjoy this "children's" series, if they're willing enough to let it absorb them.
Those are the broadest brushstrokes with which I can explain Heidi, and I hope I've captured a bit of whatever it is that has endeared it to viewers for over two decades. Now to dig into some specifics.
To start with, those familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's work will want to note that he is responsible for the design of every scene in the series, and his magical touch is evident. Director and frequent Ghlbli collaborator Isao Takahata brings his mastery of naturalism and everyday wonder to the production. Among the earliest anime the two had a controlling part in, Heidi has many elements that pervade later Ghibli works, and deserves in every way to stand among them. An impressive lineage, to be sure.
Heidi is a gentle series, and, for the most part, one designed for young children. The stories are simple and clearly explained, with few surprises and only mild tension. It's certainly in no hurry to get where it's going, at times meandering along as leisurely as the lazy summer days in the Alps. An entire episode can be spent on the most trivial matter. That is perhaps Heidi's most unique and impressive feature, and one of the reasons it has withstood the test of time: Much of it is about absolutely nothing of particular import. Many of Heidi's adventures, ranging from a single scene to spanning several episodes at a stretch, revel in the simple joys and trials of everyday life--learning to make cheese, discovering a beautiful place atop a mountain, or wandering about a city.
Almost completely devoid of symbolism or pretense, I found these parts of the series so enjoyable because of a combination of the unassumingly realistic way they are presented and the absolutely infectious sense of childhood innocence and wonder that Heidi brings with her. Heidi takes pleasure in the smallest things and finds adventure in the unlikeliest of places, making it hard not to love her. She is the main reason I could sit through 52 episodes of a children's series without getting the slightest bit annoyed.
This is the crux of what I'm trying to say here: The series works because it somehow manages to take the simple things that children take great pleasure in and present them through Heidi's eyes in a way that lets even an adult share in the experience. In the early episodes of the series, there may be a few too many of the "simple things in life" episodes in a row for the taste of an adult, but younger children won't have any complaints and in the later parts of the series I was having so much fun that I actually wanted more.
It is also worth mentioning the rest of the characters, since I was honestly surprised at how much depth most of them are given. Perhaps depth is the wrong word; it would be more accurate to say that they feel relatively real, with both strengths and flaws, and there are few caricatures among them. For example, the "villain" (an inappropriate term, really) of the story, Rottenmier, is overly strict rather than malicious, and her honest concern for Clara despite her inflexible methods is subtle but apparent. Conversely, wise and good characters, such as Clara's Grandmother, are not infallible, sometimes making mistakes in judgment. Even Heidi has a mischievous side, playing the occasional prank, making her all the more lovable and easy to associate with.
Looked at as a complete story, Heidi, Girl of the Alps makes some impressive transitions through its various phases. The story is classic enough that I hope I'm not giving much away by my rough overview, but the truly spoiler-averse may want to skip the next two paragraphs.
The initial episodes take place in the idyllic Swiss Alps. The beautiful scenery alone is reason enough to watch, but Heidi's frolicking and adventures through the seasons atop the mountain are lively fun. In the next arc, Heidi's move to Frankfurt, the series begins to become something more. Frankfurt is not portrayed as some sort of foul place unfit for habitation, but as a reasonably nice European city. Still, the barren cobblestone streets, imposing houses, unending sea of rooftops, hurried residents, and strict discipline stand in stark contrast to the freedom and natural beauty of the Alps. The juxtaposition makes Heidi's sadness and isolation in this environment almost palpable without needing a push from overblown music or any exaggerated melodrama whatsoever.
This is where the series drives its lesson home; trapped in this withering environment, Heidi still hunts out what joy she can, and refuses to be broken by Rottenmier and the city. And, thanks in part to the length of the series and the time it takes to get where it is going, when the scene finally returns to the Alps the relief is so dramatic it is amazing. The closing episodes feature such pure, unadulterated joy at Clara's tiny successes (there are no spectacular breakthroughs--her recovery is realistically slow) that I was struck by how much the series could make one feel with so little apparent effort.
Clara's methodical recovery is just one example of Heidi's impressive realism. I was honestly surprised at how much things both large and small seem to be a part of a real life. From the stunning vistas of the Alps, to the genteel house of a wealthy family, to the goats in the field, to a collection of city dwellers going about their everyday business, everything seems to be taken out of a real place somewhere. Amazingly few spots are embellished or exaggerated, particularly for a children's series. The animals in particular play a large part, and have a minimum of anthropomorphism--for the most part they move, act, and sound quite a bit like the real thing.
Also worth noting is the layering of adult and children's worlds. Adults in the series will occasionally have conversations that are not oversimplified or dumbed down to a child's level, letting the more mature viewer see a side of the story that Heidi and the other children aren't aware of.
The next piece in the exquisite puzzle of Heidi, Girl of the Alps is the visual component. Inspired by the artists' visits to the real locales, the background paintings are stunning, and there isn't a single location that seems unrealistic or out of place, let alone unattractive. The character animation, likewise, is impressive, and when you take into account the fact that the series is a TV show from the '70s, it's downright spectacular--the animation is always acceptably smooth, and there is a pervasive attention to detail in the way the characters move.
In fact, the character animation is so good that I have to give the animators some credit for the quality of the acting in the series; many scenes have little or no dialogue, yet Heidi expresses herself quite well. Lastly, there's some notably creative visual directing (Takahata's hand at work, though I'm guessing Miyazaki's scene design also deserves some credit here). Camera angles are rarely boring or fixed, often letting us view Heidi's actions from a distance, giving the viewer better sense of her surroundings, or lingering on a single, extended shot as Heidi goes about her business. When you take into account the age and pedigree of the series, the visual creativity and quality are all the more astounding--it holds its own even among modern works.
I have only three minor nitpicks with the visuals. First, the character art is rather simple, though this is hardly noticeable since the animation is so expressive and the background art so rich. My second and largest complaint is the lack of aging. The story takes place over three or four years, but Heidi doesn't look significantly different from beginning to end, and only wears two or three outfits through the series; Peter and Clara change even less. Though a shame, it's not a big deal in the long run. Lastly a tiny nitpick; I was bugged a bit that some of the scrolling backgrounds (when characters are running, for example) tend to jitter when they are repeated near the end of the shot, which seemed easily avoidable.
Moving on to the acting, I have less to say, other than that it is very good. Heidi has all the lovable spunk you'd expect, and the rest of the cast is equally likable. The standouts, though, are Rottenmier, notable for her strict but believable reprimands and amusingly exasperated moments, and Grandfather (or Old Man of the Alm, as he's usually called), for his gruff but likable voice, hardened by the occasional blunt and angry outburst when dealing with other townsfolk.
Finally, there's the music. Wonderful. On one hand are the beautiful songs that fill the series, a number of which appear briefly as background music (never part of a musical number). On the other are the milder orchestral pieces, plus the occasional chunk of traditional-sounding German song appropriate to the period. Though the rest provides color, the Japanese songs in the soundtrack are the best of it, ranging from somewhat Japanese-sounding to more European flavored, and even including some simplified yodeling in the opening and end themes.
Beautiful settings. Likable, realistic characters. Masterful character animation. Simple yet engaging story. Creative directing. Heidi, Girl of the Alps simply has everything. It is a masterfully directed series worthy of its lineage, and a children's series so good it does not deserve to be in such a restrictive category. Though it is perhaps too simple for less patient viewers and won't be nearly as enjoyable for those who don't allow themselves to be absorbed by its magic, I can't recommend it highly enough to the young and young at heart.
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The series has some of the same richness of detail and sense of realism of Miyazaki's later Kiki's Delivery Service, but none of that movie's fanciful fantasy. Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, similarly, is a creative but more fanciful children's story. The Ghibli movie Whisper of the Heart shares the portrayal of small scale adventures from the perspective of a (slightly older) child, though the setting is modern Japan. Director Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday shares thematic and stylistic elements, though the mood and setting are more nostalgia than through-children's eyes, Most similar of all are the other as-yet-unreleased-in-English TV series that were in the same World Masterpiece Theater franchise as Heidi, with 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother probably being the most popular.
Notes and Trivia
Based on the classic novel by Johanna Spyri, Heidi is one of several World Masterpiece Theater titles produced around the same period. These series have a similar pedigree, and are based on classic tales from around the world. Most, like Heidi, ran weekly for one year on TV, and were (and still are) extraordinarily popular. They include Anne of Green Gables, Perinne's Story, The Dog of Flanders, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, and Rascal the Raccoon.
Heidi's popularity isn't limited to Japan; It has seen release in about thirty countries and has been dubbed into over a dozen different languages, including English on two different occasions--once for the Philippines and again for a 2001 run in India. It has not, however, ever seen a US, UK, or Australian release (it was shown in Canada at one point, albeit in French). It's available on video in many countries, but again none of the DVD versions include either an English dub or subtitles.
There is also a movie version cut together from animation from the TV series, with several members of the voice cast changed; it had a theatrical run in Japan in 1979. This version was dubbed into English for a US home-video release in the '80s under the title "The Story of Heidi."
In an amusing example of what people with too much time on their hands do, one Japanese fan decided to analyze the precise physical properties of Heidi's swing in the fanciful opening sequence. The site is now gone, but among his conclusions: She's swinging at 68kmh on a 27m swing 100m from the ground, hanging from a 127m tree. His best comment (translated from Japanese): "The line in the song asks 'Tell me, Uncle, why I can hear a whistle from so far away'; it's because you're so bloody high up!"
US DVD Review
None with English dub or subtitles exist as of this writing.
Though there are moments of mild stress, the series is appropriate for viewers of any age.
Violence: 1 - There is brief discussion of violence and some physical drama, but never anything serious.
Nudity: 0 - Young Heidi is frequently in her old-fashioned undergarments, but that hardly qualifies as nudity of any sort.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Absolutely nothing is even implied.
Language: 0 - Completely clean.