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Little House on the Prairie (2005) DVD Review

Buy Little House on the Prairie (2005 Disney Miniseries) from Amazon.com Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie
Miniseries & DVD Details

Director: David L. Cunningham

Cast: Cameron Bancroft (Charles Ingalls), Erin Cottrell (Caroline Ingalls), Kyle Chavarria (Laura Ingalls), Danielle Ryan Chuchran (Mary Ingalls), Gregory Sporleder (Mr. Edwards), Gina Stockdale (Mrs. Scott), James Cosmo (Mr. Scott), Dorian Harewood (Dr. Tan), Byron Chief-Moon (Soldat Du Chene), Matthew Walker, Christina Jastrzembska, Richard Halliday (Shopkeeper), Royal Sproule (Post Master), Griffin Powell-Arcand (Young Indian Boy), Darcy Singer (Fierce Looking Indian), Nathaniel Arcand (Kiowa Brave)

Originally Aired: March 25 - April 23, 2005 / Running Time: 255 Minutes (6 episodes) / Rating: TV-PG

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (High-Def. Broadcast Ratio), Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: March 28, 2006
Two single-sided, single-layered discs (DVD-5s)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
White Keepcase

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Today, most people who know about Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood and adolescence in a late 19th century American pioneer family have learned about them in one of two ways. First and foremost, there is the series of nine children's books which Wilder wrote primarily in the 1930s and '40s as an older woman with fond memories, an unusual flair for writing, and the help of her novelist daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Classified as historical fiction and told in the third person, these books, known collectively as "Little House on the Prairie" (the title of the third-published and
best-known book in the lot), have remained continuously in print and captured the imaginations of young readers for several generations. In 1974, three years after Wilder's last "Little House" book The First Four Years was posthumously published, her stories began to reach a new audience, when NBC debuted an hour-long dramatic television series titled "Little House on the Prairie." The show, which starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert, would become one of the most successful hour-long series in network history, running eight seasons and carrying into a retitled, reworked ninth year and three subsequent television movies.

In the spring of 2005, longtime but currently sporadic weekend television fixture The Wonderful World of Disney presented a new take on Wilder's tales in a miniseries called Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (the author's name has been dropped from the title in the DVD's packaging). This would not be the second time Wilder's Newbery-honored books were tapped for television. A Japanese cartoon series titled "S๔gen no sh๔j๔ Laura" (and renamed "Laura the Prairie Girl" for English-speaking audiences) ran for a single season in 1975. In addition, earlier this decade, a pair of two-hour television movies, billed Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, aired on CBS and purported to remain more faithful to the source texts (the final four books) than the NBC series directly associated with them. Like the CBS telemovies, Disney's version was promoted as being realistic and scripturally accurate, an effort made clearly to distinguish this miniseries from the episodic, gentle, and loosely-adapted filming inevitably conjured by the name.

Having debuted in six hours of airtime, this production runs exactly 4ผ hours without commercials but including credits and recaps. That may sound like a substantial runtime next to standard feature film lengths, but this Little House amounts to just 1/36th as long as the grand episode total of the heavily-fabricated Landon/Gilbert show. Accordingly, Disney's scope is far more narrow, with Katie Ford's teleplay culling almost wholly from Little House on the Prairie, the 1935 book. In its entirety, this miniseries covers the Ingalls as a family of four who turn their backs on small town life and head west to the vast unknown. Chiefly inspiring the family's move are the desires of Charles Ingalls (Cameron Bancroft), a principled, bearded hunter-trapper-carpenter who seems as comfortable outdoors and working among nature as anywhere. Soft-spoken though she may be, Charles's young wife Caroline (Erin Cottrell) recognizes the wanderlust in her husband and reluctantly supports the tough decision to relocate. Their two daughters, Laura (Kyle Chavarria) and the slightly older and blonder Mary (Danielle Ryan Chuchran), have little say in the matter, but they are excited to be part of the adventure.

Yee-haw! Let's head out west, best friend! It will be great! Laura (Kyle Chavarria) and Pa (Cameron Bancroft) engage in a staring contest to see who gets to eat the rest of the beans.

Little House depicts something along the lines of what it would have been like for the Ingalls to depart from the woods outside of Pepin, Wisconsin and seek out a new beginning in the relatively virgin lands of Kansas, complete with 160 acres of free land promised by the Homestead Act of 1862. The first episode and a half cover the family's grueling, elements-braving journey through plains, mountains, and water (a not fully frozen Mississippi River) with little more than a packed wagon, two newly-obtained young mustangs named Pet and Patty, a dog with different colored eyes named Jack, and Pa's firm resolve. Subsequent installments find the Ingalls settling down in a sparsely-populated Kansas prairie, building a house, and adapting to their challenging new lifestyle, before being forced to leave.

While the Ingalls' individual personalities and close family life are both at play here, this miniseries seems to put a greater emphasis on the adventure, the drama, and the peril. That's not exactly to its credit, since its manner of portraying these aspects leaves plenty to be desired. Audiences today, especially those who have seen a lot of movies and television, should be open to modern filmmaking styles. Clearly, if everything was made in the exact same fashion, you'd basically have the Disney studio's live action work in the Ron Miller era. That period did produce a number of fun and fondly-remembered films, but the camera work, editing, palettes, and narratives consistently played things safe. Obviously, today's Disney has, like every other media producer, progressed well beyond that, and there's even a good amount of variety in The Wonderful World of Disney output, especially compared to the charming but formulaic types of two-part TV movies regularly churned out during the '60s and '70s. In the studio's repertoire, there is room for a big budget Jerry Bruckheimer-style period piece just as there is for flashy, heavily-choreographed made-for-TV musical adaptations. So be clear that I'm not objecting to Little House's filmmaking sensibilities on the basis that it doesn't coincide with traditional medium norms and by-the-numbers book-to-film translation.

Where I object is that the MTV style of filmmaking employed here does not make the most out of Wilder's intriguing recollections. Extensive cross-cutting, heavy reliance on a shaky handheld digital camera, and a constant search for catchy action sequences just does not suit the subject matter very well. The styling rarely overshadows the good and interesting qualities of the source altogether. And in times it is kept in check, such as when the episodes decide not to shun from the quieter, more compelling moments in the Ingalls life. But too often, there seems to be a desire to make Little House on the Prairie unlike NBC's "Little House on the Prairie" and something it is not.

The Ingalls Family enjoy some of nature's delights. The back of the covered wagon isn't always the most exciting place to be for May (Danielle Chuchran) and Laura (Kyle Chavarria).

The postmodern technical sensibilities have carried over to the appearances and mannerisms of the cast. There are a fair number of anachronisms, most evident in the way that the Ingalls often look, sound, and feel like a present day family unconvincingly portraying old time folks. Being true to the ways of the early 1870s might have introduced a stiffness, which is definitely one thing that this Little House can't be faulted for as a whole. Still, the cast of unknowns is largely underwhelming. I'm not sure what traits Kyle Chavarria and Danielle Ryan Chuchran displayed in auditions that led them to be cast as the two Ingalls children. It probably wasn't Chavarria's hair color, a slightly darker blonde which makes her brunette-vs.-blonde disagreements
with Mary a rather ridiculous element to retain. Both girls (who I suppose get some leniency for being young) have trouble with dramatic scenes and appear to be fighting back laughter on several occasions. At least Chavarria pulls off the speechless scenes of wonder sufficiently. As the modern-looking Ma, Erin Cottrell is tough to believe as the more reticent half of the Ingalls parents. On the other hand, Cameron Bancroft does a good job with Pa without even slightly summoning Michael Landon. The result is that Charles is the most three-dimensional character of the miniseries, which is important since he commands the most screen time.

The supporting cast fares better. Gregory Sporleder makes the Ingalls' neighbor Mr. Edwards, easily the series' most interesting character, the most likable one as well. Sporleder brings an authenticity otherwise absent, making his spitting bachelor of an outdoorsman look and act like he genuinely is from a different time and place, and perhaps could have played Buddy Ebsen's role in Disney's Davy Crockett adventures. The Ingalls' other Kansas neighbors, the Scotts, don't get as much screentime, but Gina Stockdale is mostly called on to annoy viewers as the slightly bigoted Mrs. Scott, something she does effectively.

The Ingalls' interactions with neighbors and familial dealings are undoubtedly the areas where Little House most succeeds in holding our interest. The presence of Mr. Edwards alone made any scene all the more exciting. Unfortunately, the production chooses to play out like a somewhat interesting series of hardships. From the end of the second episode through the end of the fifth, the Native Americans who also call Kansas home (and did so well before the Ingalls did) are constantly engaged to create unease. Their portrayal is not an especially flattering one, but some contemporary politically correct guilt is thrown in, nonetheless. While I suppose this abundance of Indian activity remains close to the contents of the book, it does not provide the miniseries with its most captivating moments. Nor do the other mishaps endured by the Ingalls (who, if played comedically, seem like a fine choice for a 19th century National Lampoon's Vacation movie), which include sickness, bad weather, a pack of wolves, uncooperative townspeople, a mountain lion, and a farm fire. The girls' home schooling with Caroline, a former teacher, seems little more than a side note.

Why are Ma and Pa in their longjohns? And where did these potent remedies come from? And who you gonna call when you have malaria? The answer to all three: Dr. Tan, the Indians' African American doctor. Edwards (Gregory Sporleder) and Charles (Cameron Bancroft) scout out Indian activity during some tumultous times.

While Disney's Little House remains reasonably faithful to the text, it does curiously omit Mary and Laura's younger sister Carrie, then a baby, who is mentioned in the first sentence of the book and many times after. It is also worth pointing out that while grounded in fact, the Ingalls' time in Kansas was probably not something Laura personally recalled in great detail. When the Ingalls Family really had to leave Kansas in the fall of 1870, Laura was a wee three and a half years old, a bit younger than the age she gave herself in the book and, in turn, this miniseries.

On DVD, Little House on the Prairie is presented as six episodes, with three per disc. Each episode runs between 38 and 47 minutes, which would make them fit with commercials in hour-long timeslots. The series originally aired on five consecutive Saturday nights last spring, with the first two installments debuted back to back. Though there seems to be a sufficient opening and closing (or a "To Be Continued" notice) in each episode as presented, the most appropriate division seems to be three parts. Each episode produced is titled either as a Part 1 or a Part 2. The former hold opening credits and (where applicable) "Previously on Little House on the Prairie" recaps; the latter hold cliffhanger endings and end credits. Perhaps these were originally intended to be two-hour episodes, which would make sense since that is the standard runtime of The Wonderful World of Disney. Either way, there is, of course, a "Play All" option (labeled simply "Play") provided on both discs, making the only interruption a disc switch a bit more than halfway into the middle two hours. This is accompanied by an on-screen notice.

A look at the six episodes as presented follows:

Pa and Ma sing a few verses from "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Not literally, that would be hideous. Charles meets his wildcat of a neighbor, Isaiah Edwards. Mrs. Scott (Gina Stockdale) likes to speak her mind and eat gigantic "slivers" of the pie she's just given you. What's not to love?!

1. Little House in the Big Woods Part 1 (41:44) (Originally aired March 25, 2005)
Pa Ingalls leads his family out through the wilderness away from small town life on the path to Kansas. They encounter a not fully frozen lake and the first taste of reality over the trials of their travels. Laura and Mary begin to get bored, while Ma wonders if the move is a good idea.

2. Little House in the Big Woods Part 2 (43:08) (Originally aired March 25, 2005)
The Ingalls think they've lost their dog Jack in crossing a rough river, but he's not dead. They arrive in Kansas and meet their spitting, rugged "wildcat" bachelor neighbor, Edwards, who helps Pa finish building a house when Ma gets hurt. They also meet wolves and Indians.

3. The Ingalls' Journey Part 1 (45:12) (Originally aired April 2, 2005)
Indians and mosquitoes pose more hardships for the Ingalls, who soon get to meet new neighbors, the obnoxious Scot Mrs. Scott and her husband. After they take steps to protect their home, malaria sidelines the Ingalls Family. Cowboys provide work for Pa and Laura, though their salary is of the red meat variety.

A little bit of rain might stop Santa Claus, but not Mr. Edwards, who ensures that the Ingalls have a merry Christmas. Ma and the girls are on edge during a night spent at the Scotts' house. Laura, Edwards, and Pa sit for some tri-plane framing at the finally-opened homesteading office.

4. The Ingalls' Journey Part 2 (39:50) (Originally aired April 9, 2005)
The first two thirds of this episode find more trying times for the Ingalls, as Charles' journey into town finds no mail from back home but several unsympathetic local folk. Indians are again in abundance in the middle stretch, as they again turn up uninvited and unexpected at the Ingalls' home. In the final third, it looks like Christmas will be a bust, as heavy rains have flooded the creek, keeping Charles from securing dinner and presents. But the rains aren't too much for Santa Claus, thanks to a cleaned-up Mr. Edwards, who keeps the holiday happy for the Ingalls in what is the most enjoyable portion of the miniseries overall.

5. Adventures on the Kansas Prairie Part 1 (46:20) (Originally aired April 16, 2005)
Pa wrestles for his life against a feisty mountain lion, but that is only the beginning of more worries for the Ingalls clan. A fire takes hold of the family's farm and talk around town seems to indicate that the Indians are behind it. The Ingalls and Edwards (who has had his home destroyed by the Indians while in it) brace themselves for the feared and anticipated war by boarding up the Scotts' house and moving in for an interesting night.

6. Adventures on the Kansas Prairie Part 2 (38:37) (Originally aired April 23, 2005)
The Indians have decided to move west following negotiations with the U.S. government, giving the Ingalls an opportunity to explore their camps. But their increased feeling of security disappears when soldiers arrive to inform the Ingalls that they and others illegally homesteading on what was previously Indian land will be forced to leave. Though Charles pleas with the newly-opened homesteading office, the decision is enforced, and the Ingalls are to be made an example of. Goodbyes are said and the final third finds the family packing up and getting ready to head north to a location to be decided.

Shots employing weird angles like this are commonplace in Disney's "Little House on the Prairie." These two "Indians" make a housecall on the Ingalls while Pa is away. Got cornmeal?

VIDEO and AUDIO

With this having been a new Disney miniseries which aired only last year, I expected video quality to be quite pleasing, as is true of most new productions' DVD debuts. I was rather surprised and disappointed then with the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
transfer that was offered here. Apparently, Little House was shot on less than grade-A digital video. The biggest problem is that fuzzy lines are abound whenever there is movement; shimmering is frequent and fairly distracting. This trend was most evident on a standard television and DVD player; when viewed on a computer's DVD-ROM, the issue is still there, but the blurring is noticeable, but not as distinctly in lines.

The major issue of camera and character movement producing digital blur lines may be more the fault of the filming than the DVD transfer, though I can't definitively state that, having not seen the original broadcasts. One thing is certain: the decision to make both discs (which while barren of bonuses and alternate languages, do contain over two hours of video each) the single-layered (DVD-5) variety is puzzling and responsible for a lower than usual 4.2 Mb/s average bitrate. The amount of space used on the two discs combined ever so slightly surpasses the capacity of a single dual-layered (DVD-9) disc. But compression would have been considerably reduced (and the problems possibly improved) had dual-layered discs been employed, as they are regularly for direct-to-video movies with running times half as short as either disc's contents. Even putting the first four episodes on a dual-layered Disc 1 and giving the final two installments room to breathe on a single-layered Disc 2 should have made things better and would have lent itself to more fluid playback by removing the split in the middle of "The Ingalls' Journey." But I don't master discs, so what do I know?

Beyond the major problem, a handful of night shots appear excessively grainy, but most of the outdoors mise en sc่ne is bright, colorful, and looks to have been shot (I'm told) in Teletubbyland. Aside from that and the occasionally evident artifacting, the picture quality is fine. Contrast is satisfying, the picture looks sharp outside of the motion blur, and the element remains otherwise unplagued. But it's tough to look past the central flaw, since the blur lines around edges may vary in noticeability, but they never go away. At times, they're atrocious, as in the very poor-looking beginning of the second installment. I'm not sure where quality control failed, in letting a major studio miniseries be captured on shoddy equipment or in letting over four hours of unacceptable video mastering reach the public. But the blame must lie somewhere and that's a shame, because this miniseries contains some nice imagery at times when it is enabled to overcome the medium's shortcomings. Thanks to the constantly-moving handheld directorial style, that limits the amount of pleasing photography basically to stationary, setting-establishing shots. Overall, this picture quality is less than what I expected from a 2005 Disney project and I'm usually not hard to please in this department.

In a pleasant contrast from the video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very engulfing and capably presented. John Cameron's score is a suitable one and thankfully, the use of contemporary-sounding spiritual music is kept to a minimum and employed with decreasing frequency. The course of events lends itself to and delivers potent bass (think Native American drums and cavalry), tangible atmosphere, and impressive directionality. The volume needs to be turned up a bit for enjoyment, but dynamic levels are consistent. The front-heavy design is solid and the delivery of dialogue leaves no room for complaint. This encompassing sound mix is as satisfying as what I think could be expected if Little House went to theaters, which is high praise for a television movie and all that needs to be said.

The composite artwork on Disc 2's Main Menu is slightly better looking than Disc 1's. Look at that - more composite artwork adorns Disc 2's Episode Selection menu. And Pa Ingalls hasn't moved a muscle! Amazing!

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, DESIGN and PACKAGING

In a rare move for the studio, this two-disc set boasts no bonus features whatsoever. Disc 1 opens with the obligatory sneak peeks for Pixar's Cars, "Home Improvement": The Complete Fourth Season, direct-to-video monkey action flick Spymate, and latest Air Bud movie Air Buddies. These promos are available individually and as a whole from the dedicated Sneak Peeks menu, which holds no additional previews.

The 16x9 menus are about as simple as they come, with the Sneak Peeks section's animated introduction being as exciting as things get. The other selection screens offer pleasant and lengthy score excerpts and clearly composite still artwork from the miniseries. Though each installment is divided into 5-7 chapters, like most TV series, there are no scene selection menus, making the "Skip" button your friend for quick access.

Inside the case, which distinguishes this as part of the loose Disney's Literary Collection (other titles thus classified appear at the end of this review), there is an insert promoting the nine Laura Ingalls Wilder books which inspired Little House (see the end of this review for those too), another insert which lists the episode titles and advertises Once Upon a Mattress, and an entry form for the studio's long-running 100 Disney DVD Collection sweepstakes.

The Ingalls Family takes a look at the Indian camp. Hooray for pioneers!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I can appreciate Little House on the Prairie's aim to provide an adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book that was more faithful and realistic than the widely-seen NBC series it may be eternally associated with. It only finds mild success, though. The result of the more literal translation is that this production is not as easy to embrace or invest interest in.
While it definitely has its moments, the focus on action and hardship wears thin, the shaky directorial style feels out of place, much of the cast's acting leaves plenty to be desired, and any anachronisms and anomalies (like the absence of Baby Carrie) demand being taken to task. Though it's better than most of what is on the airwaves today and should please fans of Wilder's books who have longed for a more "accurate" filming, Little House will probably leave most other people either apathetic or underwhelmed.

Disney's two-disc DVD release is timely enough and seems reasonably priced, delivering over four hours of program at a standard new movie's tag. The soundtrack may be stellar for a TV production, but the video quality is surprisingly lacking, due to the source, the transfer, or, quite likely, a mix of the two. Couple this with a fairly obvious missed opportunity to supplement the miniseries with bonuses on either the filming or the author and it's easy to see why this set might be aptly labeled a letdown. At least it's available at all, which can't be said for either the anime cartoon or two CBS movies which emanated from the same source. That might be reason enough for Wilder fans to check this out, which they ought to.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
Other DVDs in Disney's Literary Collection
A Wrinkle in Time • Heidi • Eloise at Christmastime • Where the Red Fern Grows • The Young Black Stallion

Other Made-for-TV Movies and Series: Saving Sarah Cain (2007)

The Wonderful World of Disney:
Once Upon a Mattress • Sounder • Oliver Twist • The Muppets' Wizard of Oz • Balloon Farm • Eloise at the Plaza

The Disney Channel
Five Mile Creek: The Complete First Season (1983-84) • Tales From Avonlea: The Complete First Season (1990)
Perfect Harmony • Get a Clue • The Even Stevens Movie • Hannah Montana: The Complete First Season
Cadet Kelly • Halloweentown & Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge (Double Feature)

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House Books

The Little House Boxed Set (contains 9 books) Little House in the Big Woods Farmer Boy Little House on the Prairie On the Banks of Plum Creek By The Shores of Silver Lake The Long Winter Little Town on the Prairie These Happy Golden Years The First Four Years
The Little House:
Boxed Set
(9-Book Collection)
Little House in
the Big Woods

pub. 1932
Farmer Boy
pub. 1933
Little House
on the Prairie

pub. 1935
On the Banks
of Plum Creek

pub. 1937
By The Shores
of Silver Lake

pub. 1939
The Long
Winter

pub. 1940
Little Town
on the Prairie

pub. 1941
These Happy
Golden Years

pub. 1943
The First
Four Years

pub. 1971

NBC's "Little House on the Prairie" on DVD

Little House on the Prairie: The Pilot Little House on the Prairie: Season 1 Little House on the Prairie: Season 2 Little House on the Prairie: Season 3 Little House on the Prairie: Season 4 Little House on the Prairie: Season 5 Little House on the Prairie: Season 6 Little House on the Prairie: Season 7 Little House on the Prairie: Season 8 Little House on the Prairie: Season 9 - A New Beginning
Little House
on the Prairie:
The Pilot

1974
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 1

1974-75
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 2

1975-76
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 3

1976-77
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 4

1977-78
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 5

1978-79
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 6

1979-80
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 7

1980-81
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 8

1981-82
Little House
on the Prairie:
Season 9 - A
New Beginning

1982-83

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Reviewed March 23, 2006.