History for the kids -- A review of ''The Ernest Green Story,'' ''Friendship in Vienna,'' and more

By Jill Rachlin
Updated August 13, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

History for the kids

With what seems to be deliverance from the summer doldrums, a whole set of new movies shows up in your video store. A closer look at the Disney Family Fun Collection display, however, reveals that while all 10 offerings have been packaged to look like feature films, they’re actually made-for-TV movies that have aired on the Disney Channel. If your kids haven’t already seen these on cable, you’ll be tempted to whip out your rental card under the assumption that the Disney label itself is enough to guarantee the quality of the movies — and you’ll pretty much be right.

Know ahead of time, though, that while these movies meet Disney’s high standards, only four of these 11 2-hour-long movies are comedies. The other six (Back Home; Chips, the War Dog; The Ernest Green Story; Friendship in Vienna; Goodbye Miss 4th of July; and Perfect Harmony) are mostly intense, moving dramas about young people combating adversity. Of course, true to Disney form, all of the movies, no matter how bleak, have upbeat endings.

Dramatic period pieces like The Ernest Green Story, the inspiring true 1950s saga of the first young black man to graduate from a previously all-white high school in Little Rock, Ark., are hardly Pollyannaish, however. Some sensitive children may be disturbed by the true-to-life violence and hatred that permeate these movies. For example, Ernest (Morris Chestnut) encounters racist whites who try to injure him, and even threaten to shoot him if he attends his own graduation. We share his frustration and his pain — and his hard-earned triumph when he graduates.

If they can get past the ugliness, children may be enlightened by the common message of these well-acted films: The world can be a cruel, unfair place, but you can’t let that stop you from doing what you know is right. In the touching Friendship in Vienna, a young Jewish girl (Jenny Lewis) and the daughter of an Austrian Nazi (Kamie Harper) remain best friends even as outside forces try to tear them apart. It is because of their undying friendship that the Jewish girl’s family (powerfully played by Jane Alexander and Edward Asner) finds a way to escape Nazi-run Austria.

Naturally, most kids will probably prefer the comedies included in this entertainment grab bag: Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss and the shticky science fiction Not Quite Human and its two sequels, Not Quite Human 2 and Still Not Quite Human. In these mild movies, a high-tech toy maker (Alan Thicke) builds a computer-driven teenage son named Chip (Jay Underwood). These may not be Disney comedy classics on the level of The Absent-Minded Professor, but they sure beat most summer reruns.
The Ernest Green Story: A
Friendship in Vienna: A
Not Quite Human series: C