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The Heidi story loses its way in picturesque "Courage Mountain'

Taking its cue from Johanna Spyri's classic children's story Heidi, the movie Courage Mountain is an honest, though slightly flawed attempt to show a young girl's coming of age against a historical setting. The girl in particular is named Heidi, though it's difficult to establish the connection between this movie and the classic book.

Is Courage Mountain a sequel to Heidi, or is it a remake of the story, which has already been filmed several times? Screenwriter Weaver Webb isn't telling, and the story credit goes to Fred and Mark Brogger. Writer Johanna Spyri's name is notably absent from the movie's credits.

Whatever the case, this story puts the Swiss-born Heidi into the middle of World War I by way of a girls' academy in Italy. At the film's beginning, Heidi leaves her aging, caring grandfather (Jan Rubes) to seek an education there.

The academy scenes in Italy will strike a chord in anyone who's ever been the new kid in school. Heidi is ridiculed at first for her common dress and manners, but she finds a fast friend in the school's headmistress, played by Leslie Caron.

Italian troops soon arrive to disrupt this idyllic setting and take the academy's magnificent mansion as their garrison. Director Christopher Leitch doesn't dwell on the tragedy here. In fact, he stages a brief but wonderful pillow fight scene right in the center of the turmoil.

But soon tragedy does overtake this picture, and Webb's script pulls in two directions at once. On one hand, he tells a sometimes bitter but touching story of the young Heidi leaving her girlhood behind and maturing into a young woman.

Too often the movie slips into a predictable, almost cartoonish sensibility. Heidi and a few girls are taken to a dungeon-like orphanage, run by the cruel Senor Bonelli, who's as hackneyed a villain as you're likely to see on screen this year.

Bonelli's orphanage exists solely to exploit the dozens of Dickensian waifs as slave labor. Under his iron hand, they labor to produce daintily wrapped soaps for the masses. When Heidi and her friends escape, we are asked to believe that Bonelli would simply drop everything to pursue them for days across the Swiss Alps.

The journey home is Heidi's rite of passage, and there are many memorable scenes. One in particular has this rag-tag band of girls being led by Heidi through a fresh battlefield littered with dozens of dead bodies. Stepping past the carnage, one little girl asks if the bodies are Italians or Austrians.

"It doesn't matter," Heidi replies sadly. "It doesn't matter." And we see her age years in an instant as she realizes the futility and horror of war. It's such a good scene you almost wish it were in another movie.

As Heidi, Juliette Caton has a lean and sad face that can erupt into a beautiful, broad smile without warning. She is easily innocent without being too naive; we constantly see her character experiencing new emotions and struggling to understand them.

American actor Charlie Sheen is hopelessly miscast as Peter, Heidi's soon-to-be boyfriend. Sheen is simply the star draw here, the box office magnet. He doesn't attempt any acting; he doesn't even attempt an accent.

Sheen's character is wooden anyway, as are the villains here, but Caton brings her Heidi to life, and cinematographer Jacques Steyn gives the movie a classic, richly detailed look. His shots of the city are stunning enough, but his visual artistry shines in the mountain settings.

These scenes were filmed in the Styrian Alps in Austria, and their magnificent, fog-shrouded silence gives the events of Courage Mountain a solid tie to the landscape. This is a coming-of-age story, and there's even a history lesson hidden here, but above all this is a beautiful movie to look at.

MOVIE REVIEW

Courage Mountain

Cast: Juliette Caton, Charlie Sheen, Yorgo Voyagis, Jan Rubes, Leslie Caron

Director: Christopher Leitch

Screenplay: Weaver Webb, from a story by Fred and Mark Brogger

Cinematography: Jacques Steyn

Production Design: Robb Wilson King

Editor: Martin Walsh

Music: Sylvester Levay

Rating: PG

Excellent; Verygood;

Good; Mediocre; Poor

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