I have never watched Little House on the Prairie, so I admit to having no frame of reference when I approached this set, which actually contains two separate made for television movies: Beyond The Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Beyond The Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder Continues. Now, since I’ve used up a large portion of my review space just mentioning the titles of these two films, I will try to be as succinct as possible. Suffice to say that, while I was aware of the show, all I really know about the lady is that she grew up on the prairies in a small house of some kind, and that she is beloved by a certain portion of the population. Also, if memory serves, she may or may not have been friends with NFL Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen.
The two films chronicle the life of Ingalls Wilder, from her days as a teenager growing into womanhood on the 19th century Dakota frontier to her eventual marriage to Almanzo Wilder and their emigration to Missouri. The films are quite authentic in their depiction of the harsh realities of frontier life, particularly the Dakota winters, and show death and loss as a constant danger, even when the focus is on wholesome family drama. Blizzards, hail storms, starvation, and disease are among the constant threats that loom over these characters, and the films do a pretty good job making these things real.
Where the films don’t work, however, is in telling this story without it feeling truncated, with scene transitions that jump from one moment to another with little flow or sense of how one thing led to the next. There is a scene, for example, where the mother, played by Lindsay Crouse, absolutely loses it on the father (Richard Thomas) because he discusses picking up and heading for Oregon. Clearly, this was an issue between them, but though his wanderlust is mentioned earlier, up to this point there is little to lead us to believe that this is a problem for her.
The cast is a mixed bag, led by Meredith Monroe as Laura. Monroe has an interesting look, sort of a Claire Danes lite, but is unable to carry the heavier material, with many scenes coming across in a high school production kind of way. Crouse and Thomas are pretty solid as her parents, and do what they can with the material they’re given. The highlight of the cast is Walton Goggins, who went on to bigger and better things after this project with solid, edgy work on The Shield and Justified.
If nothing else, I would give the films a recommendation to fans of Little House or of Ingalls Wilder in general, but after doing some online research into the woman in preparation for viewing this disc, I must include a caveat. It seems that fans of the lady are just as excrutiatingly picky and critical as the most hardcore Star Trek nerds. I found tons of forum posts slamming this film for such heinous sins as slightly altering the colour of different characters’ hair, changing the date a baby dies, and forgetting that Almanzo’s parents moved from New York before the date that he and his brother go to visit them there. So fans, consider yourselves warned.
Both films are presented in 4:3 “full frame” which, considering its source and its age (the original film was first aired on CBS in 2000) is to be expected. Clarity is quite good and the colour palette is varied, with many rich earth tones and huge blue skies. The transfer is also solid, with no real flaws in evidence.
Both films feature 2.0 Dolby Digital which, again, is to be expected. Dialogue is very clear and the sound design comes across nicely, with booming thunderstorms and howling blizzard winds evoking the terror of the characters dealing with such environments. The music tracks are also very clear, though they present a constant danger of putting the audience to sleep with their generic frontiery strains.
Previews of I Love Lucy: The Complete Series and Petticoat Junction Season 1 are all that the disc offers.
What we have here is basic, okay quality CBS Sunday movie fare. Production values are decent but this thing plays like a TV movie from start to finish. As I said, it may be a good purchase for the less rabid Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there, but the rest of us can very easily find a better way to spend three hours.