We gave it an A-
Think of Laura Ingalls as Harry Potter without the broomstick, potions, and magical otherworld playground. Like Harry, she’s a scrappy kid exploring mystifying and sometimes deadly territory — in this case, the Midwest wilderness of the late 1800s. Just as Harry proudly proclaims himself a wizard, Laura (Kyle Chavarria) adores her new title: ”Are we going to be pioneers?” she chirps at the beginning of this five-part series, investing the word with big, round wonder. Just as the Potter world can make even adult Muggles regret being left out of sorcery, so will Little House on the Prairie make you sad to have missed out on fun afterschool activities like frontiering.
Based on Ingalls’ memoir of the same name, Little House hews closer to the book than the 1974-83 series starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon. That’s great, because this classic story was due for a clear-eyed remake: This Little House is unnerving, darker than its predecessor, yet sensibly sweet (but mush- and moppet-free). It’s also packed with enough workaday moments — bracing a downhill wagon, rolling logs for a cabin — to make you want to get out your toolbox and be handy.
Despite its 19th-century setting, the story is ever-translatable. Independent-minded Charles ”Pa” Ingalls (Cameron Bancroft), weary from working for the man in Wisconsin, loads up his family for a major road trip — two months of crossing rivers and steep hills to Kansas, where land is up for grabs. Director David L. Cunningham, a travel documentarian who has covered races like the Baja 1000, captures the terror of the adventure: The camera is all jumps and cuts as the family realizes the ice of the Mississippi River is cracking beneath their wagon, or later, when a pack of wolves circles Laura and Pa.
Just as genuine are the child’s-view moments: Laura and her sister, Mary (Danielle Ryan Chuchran), are constantly bumping around in the back of the wagon (this is a cruiser that lacks not only a built-in DVD player but shocks), and grow petulant until they spot their first buffalo. At one point, Laura bangs away on a beautiful organ someone abandoned in the middle of a stream — it’s an ominous sign of coming struggles to her parents but a makeshift plaything to her. (The teleplay was written by Miss Congeniality scribe Katie Ford, who knows something about plucky tomboys.)
By the end of the first two hours, the Ingalls family have built their Kansas cabin, which comes complete with a wacky neighbor, Wildcat Edwards (Gregory Sporlader), a coonskin-capped fellow who teaches Laura how to spit. The remainder of the series centers largely on homesteading and survival. Yellow fever nearly undoes the family. Also, the Native Americans have rejected the government’s treaty, and are duly scornful of the settlers. (One group stalks into the Ingallses’ home and silently walks away with cornmeal.) Although flutey dream music attends Laura’s burgeoning friendship with a boy from a local tribe, the series mostly avoids the gooey mysticism so often inflicted on Native Americans in film. As Pa tells Laura: ”Some’s good and some’s not so good, just like all men.”
All the threats, accidents, and illnesses never overshadow the Ingallses’ family life — and Little House‘s clan is wonderfully cast with relative unknowns. Erin Cottrell invests Caroline ”Ma” Ingalls with sturdiness and sufficiency without succumbing to that anachronistic you-go-girl! tone actresses too often foist upon their period characters. Chuchran gives Mary the girly-girl hesitancy that, in Ingalls’ books, made her such a perfect foil to her impetuous sister. But mostly, Little House settles around Pa and Laura’s father-daughter adoration. Bancroft’s Pa Ingalls is a charming risk taker, a guy who, if he lived today, might take his daughter bungee jumping when Mom’s not looking. Chavarria blooms in scenes with him. She’s also got a booming enthusiasm and a hilarious, moony smile that conveys the spirit of Laura — and the time period.
So shut your curtains and block out the SUVs and leaf blowers and endless blocks of mini-marts outside. Treat yourself to a balm: wind on the prairie and a dazzled young girl running through miles of grassland, just because it goes on forever and she can too. The world of Little House has a dash of magic, after all.