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Television Review

Disney's 'Miracle Worker' a Bit Too Polished but Still Powerful

November 11, 2000|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes, there's a reason for tampering with perfection.

In the case of the new remake of "The Miracle Worker," airing Sunday as a "Wonderful World of Disney" presentation on ABC, it comes down to this: Reaching today's young people.

While it's true that most any youngster can grasp the landmark 1962 film version that features Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in Oscar-winning performances as teacher Anne Sullivan and her young charge, the deaf, blind and mute Helen Keller, there are several valid reasons to remake the story.

For one, the original, directed by Arthur Penn, is in black and white, and while that helps to give the movie a superbly moody, gritty tone, it is no doubt off-putting to contemporary kids, who do everything in color, from watching television to playing with their Game Boys.

There's also something to be said for trying to reach youngsters with new actors, from their own frame of reference, as a 1979 TV movie did by advancing Duke to the Sullivan role and bringing in Melissa Gilbert to play Helen. Now, Helen is portrayed by 8-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who has been unmissable lately in those voice-altered Pepsi commercials and such movies as "Bicentennial Man" and "Beautiful."

Eisenberg gives a fierce, committed performance, as does Alison Elliott ("Wings of the Dove") as Sullivan. Their work goes a long way toward legitimizing this project, which in many other ways has been too cleaned up by writers Monte Merrick and Marsha Norman (who gave the script a dialogue polish) and director Nadia Tass.

As re-envisioned here, the tone is too soaked in sunlight and saturated with color, and too many rough edges have been knocked off the characters. Eisenberg's Helen is always dressed in crisp, clean clothes, unlike Duke's, who--more realistically--was often covered in grime from her many falls and willful acts of demolition. Elliott's Sullivan is less prickly than Bancroft's, as are Helen's parents, played by David Strathairn and Kate Greenhouse. Everyone seems more confident, agreeable and self-aware, and speaks in perfectly structured sentences that leave no nuance of characterization unarticulated.

Thankfully, most of the key scenes and many of the lines remain from William Gibson's original television-to-stage-to-film version, and with them linger the story's knife-edged humor and heart-tugging drama. This remains a story of strong-willed people who won't let circumstances limit what they can achieve. Elliott's Sullivan is determined to instill in Helen--deaf and blind since a fever in infancy--the gift of language, and Eisenberg's Helen--once she is done testing the strange new person in her life--is hungry to learn.

The pivotal scene remains the long battle at the dining table, with Helen and her teacher engaged in a face-slapping, hair-pulling contest that puts those WWF wrestlers to shame. Watch the actors' faces, where grim determination and devilish flashes of inspiration communicate more powerfully than any of the overwritten lines of dialogue.

*

* "The Miracle Worker" airs Sunday, 7-9 p.m., on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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