Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie Review: Beyond the Prairie, Part 2: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2002)

Beyond the Prairie, Part 2 continues the story of the Wilder family. Having set out in a covered wagon, they cross the Missouri River and leave Dakota behind.

While optimistic about their new home, troubles plague them. Almanzo's health continues to impair his ability to clear  the land and plant the apple trees left behind by the previous owners. They must hire help, but have no way to pay anyone other than in firewood. Rose is bullied at school and begins keeping to herself. She runs away and gets lost in a cave.

As the years pass, things improve for the Wilders, until Laura is called back to De Smet to visit her beloved father on his death bed.

A curious thing happens between the two movies. At the end of Beyond the Prairie, narrator Tess Harper, who plays an older Laura, tells viewers that the Wilders traveled for six weeks and arrived at their final destination in Missouri. Amazingly, Rose Wilder, who was a toddler (probably about 2) when she left De Smet, is school age at the beginning of Beyond the Prairie, Part 2. Now, I love Skye McCole Bartusiak's portrayal of the highly intelligent, moody Rose Wilder, but I thought the rapid aging of characters was reserved for soap operas. This seems to be one of those cases where the storyline dictates throwing common sense out the window.

Meredith Monroe and Walton (Walt) Goggins reprise their roles as Laura and Almanzo Wilder in this movie. Their performances are stellar, despite the inaccurate and somewhat lackluster storyline they are handed. We see the young couple thrilled to discover the new home they hope to turn into a prosperous farm. We ache with them when they believe the $100 bill Laura had tucked into her writing desk has disappeared, just as we rejoice when Laura finds the money that had slid into a crack. We are inspired by all the hard work they do to get their farm up and running, and we feel their anxiety when Rose is lost.

An interesting exchange takes place between Laura and a stranger on the wagon train. A young immigrant stops the Wilders on their way to the river, and encourages them to come into their camp for conversation. This is where the Wilders meet Beth and George Magnuson and their son, Charlie, who is played by a young Cody Linley (Jake Ryan, Hannah Montana). This immigrant approaches Laura at night when she is writing and asks her what their story is. She mentions the death of their son. In The Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz, it is said that the Wilders never spoke of their son's death. Rose didn't even know she had a brother until after her mother died. I find it curious that she would speak of something so personal to a stranger.

A tiny nitpick for the house on the Wilders' new property having a rusted box spring mattress that was left behind. While spring mattresses replaced the timber frames late in the 19th century, it's highly unlikely many pioneers would have been able to afford one, especially if they were living in a house as small as the first one that stood on what would be named Rocky Ridge Farm. It's kind of like spotting a red metal toolbox on the floor when Manly (Almanzo) brings Bessie (Laura) to see their new house under construction before they're married in the first movie. Also, for some reason, I recall there being a scene where Laura asks Rose if she took the $100 from the desk when they discover it missing. That's not on the DVD. It might not seem like an important scene, but just like the tense scenes between Rose and her mother where Laura insists she stop speaking her made up language or when Laura tells Rose she must return to school even if the girls are mean to her, it shows the somewhat difficult relationship they had in real life.

The viewer doesn't get a chance to see all of what happens in the near decade they lived at Rocky Ridge before the new house is built. As the first harvest of apples begins to ripen, Laura imagines for Rose what she thinks their future will look like, and suddenly we have this picture of the new house waiting for its coat of white paint. We get a chance to see the Ingalls family one last time and for Pa and Flutterbudget to share a moving moment.

What I find most interesting in Beyond the Prairie and Beyond the Prairie, Part 2 is how many people encouraged Laura's writing. Her own father toward the end of the movie instructs her not to forget about the pioneering era and not to let Rose forget it either. While poetry and writing articles seemed to come naturally for the real life Laura, it's truly not until she is encouraged by Rose, as a successful writer, that Laura considers penning her now classic books. Perhaps the writer and producers of the movie are attempting to show us that this was who she was meant to be all along, but I didn't get that feeling from the historical information I've read.

Overall, Beyond the Prairie, Part 2 has its place in the world for Laura fans. Those who don't care for the liberties Michael Landon took in producing Little House on the Prairie probably aren't going to be fond of this movie either. For those of us who grew up loving the television show, Beyond the Prairie, Part 2 and its predecessor is another way for us to honor the legacy that Laura left behind.

Actors: Terra Allen, Alandra Bingham, J. Scott Bronson, Courtnie Bull, Lindsay Crouse
Directors: Marcus Cole
Writers: Stephen Harrigan
Producers: Dori Weiss, Robert M. Rolsky, Stephen Harrigan
Format: Color, DVD, Full Screen, Subtitled, NTSC
Language: English
Subtitles: English
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Paramount
DVD Release Date: November 23, 2010
Run Time: 96 minutes
Dean Butler (Almanzo Wilder, Little House on the Prairie, NBC) is working on a production of Laura's life. It has been shown at some of the festivals celebrating the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Hopefully it makes it to TV or directly to DVD soon.

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