Please note that this review pertains to the Anchor Bay release of this film (there are other releases of this film either pending or currently in existence).
Savannah Smiles is, hands down, one of the best family films of all time, and as it tends to go out of print on a regular basis, you'd be wise to snap this one up before you're forced to pay $75 for a bad copy of it on the internet. It was one of the first films I can remember seeing over and over again on a relatively new channel called HBO, which was part of the then-new phenomenon of cable television, back when cable boxes were big and bulky and did not come with remote controls.
Filmed in 1982, Savannah Smiles is the story of a little girl who is neglected by her wealthy parents, only to run away from home and encounter two bumbling crooks, Alvie (Mark Miller) and Bootsie (Donovan Scott), who become surrogate parents to her. Because Savannah's father is a political figure, it is assumed that she has been kidnapped, and a manhunt, led by legendary actor Peter Graves, ensues. Despite their initial misgivings, Alvie and Bootsie take Savannah to live in an abandoned house, as she has no desire to return to the palatial home she shares with her parents. Bootsie, being the softer of the two crooks, bonds with Savannah almost instantly, while Alvie, who has his heart set on the significant amount of reward money that is offered, initially avoids any emotion toward Savannah.
This story works on every single level. Written by Mark Miller (father of actress Penelope Ann Miller), who plays Alvie, it is less about Savannah and more about Alvie, who, after a lifetime of neglect himself, finally learns to love, thanks to Savannah. His hysterically funny, adversarial relationship with Bootsie, who is definitely not the smarter one of the two, is touching as well. Even the musical montage that features the three main characters spending a day in the country together is beautiful. Most of the time, scenes like this are sappy beyond belief, but in Savannah Smiles, it comes across as real and touching. What is great about this movie is that none of the characters are perfect. The two "heroes" are felons, yet they have a soft side. Savannah is a sweet girl, but she knows how to throw a temper tantrum. These characteristics give the film a realism rarely seen in current family fare.
Late actor Pat Morita, of Happy Days and The Karate Kid fame, makes an appearance as the family priest who is attempting to aid in the recovery of Savannah, and some of his scenes with Alvie and Boots are pure comedic genius. The actress who plays Savannah, Bridgette Anderson, enjoyed a fairly steady career as a child actress (she appeared as a guest star on sitcoms such as The Golden Girls), yet she tragically died of a heroin overdose over 10 years ago. Her innocence is forever captured in this film, which she carries quite ably on her young shoulders.
Now, here are some caveats from a parenting perspective. While the story itself is impeccable, there is some very mild language used that some parents may find objectionable, and it is likely what led to its PG, rather than G, rating. For instance, Alvie complains that Bootsie is "bitchin'" about something early on in the movie. Also, this is a full-length feature, so kids under age six or so may find that their attention wanders, especially during the parts that feature the investigators and the completely unsympathetic and selfish parents. There is quite a bit of firearm use as well, as the investigators close in on Alvie and Bootsie, but know that the overall point being made is that the investigators' actions are excessive and unnecessary, so in a way, there is an anti-violence message at the same time.
I often watch the many children's and family discs I review with my six-year-old, who helps to give me a kid's perspective on material I may not appreciate as much with my at-times jaundiced adult eye. Our reaction to Savannah Smiles, however, was exactly the same. I had forgotten that the ending is so emotional, and in trying to hide my tears at the end from my son, I happened to glance over at him to see he was crying too! It was one of the nicest movie watching experiences we have ever had together, and we watch many films in any given year. I was thrilled to share this beloved movie from my own childhood with him, and hopefully many parents out there who remember Savannah Smiles from years ago, will feel the same way.