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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Courage Mountain' Offers Few Peaks

February 16, 1990|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The uneven, curiously titled "Courage Mountain" (citywide) would have been better off called what it is: "The Further Adventures of Heidi."

Although the often-filmed Swiss children's novel "Heidi," which was based on its writer Johanna Spyri's experiences living with her grandfather in the Alps, was published in 1880, "Courage Mountain" writers Weaver Webb and Fred and Mark Brogger have moved the time up to the outbreak of World War I.

Heidi (lovely, talented Juliette Caton, who was the tempting angel in "The Last Temptation of Christ") is now a beautiful teen-ager eager to be old enough to be the beau of her 18-year-old neighbor, Peter (Charlie Sheen). Meanwhile, her grandfather (Jan Rubes) sends her off to an exclusive finishing school in Northern Italy run by the elegant and emphatic Miss Hillary (Leslie Caron).

Heidi barely has time to adjust to her richer and more sophisticated classmates when the army commandeers the school, and Heidi and three of her classmates end up in the local orphanage. It's run by a dastardly couple, the Bonellis (Yorgo Voyagis, Laura Betti), who turn their charges into slaves, laboring in their soap factory. When Heidi becomes determined that she and her friends must escape, the film's adventures begin in earnest.

Or rather they should. Unfortunately, director Christopher Leitch has not been able to sustain the panache and momentum with which he gets the film under way, and its final portion slackens just when it should be its most taut. (Not helping matters is Sylvester Levay's trite, sappy and downright intrusive score.) The story owes a clear debt to Dickens, "Oliver Twist" especially, yet its mild PG rating should be taken very seriously: It is far too harrowing for small children, particularly in its orphanage sequences.

On the plus side are the film's gorgeous natural locales and period settings, all of which have been stunningly photographed by Jacques Steyn (who also shot the current "Kill Me Again"). The acting honors go to Leslie Caron and Laura Betti. Caron is so strongly associated with several classic MGM musicals that many may not realize that in the European cinema she has emerged in more recent years as a stylish, witty character actress.

Her Miss Hillary, born in France but raised in Britain, is a crisp, doughty, loving charmer, so well-bred that for all her character and courage she is not prepared to deal with the crude evil and corruption of the Bonellis. Both Voyagis, who is Greek, and Betti, a plump, golden-haired stalwart of the Italian cinema, play their villains with a delightful touch of tongue-in-cheek. It's admirable of Sheen to accept small roles in small films, but here his presence is jarring because he makes no attempt whatsoever at an accent.

Two final nagging questions: Why would Heidi's grandfather send her off to Northern Italy when he seems to be aware of the gathering war clouds, and why to such a fancy establishment in the first place?

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