Disney’s ‘Miracle Worker’ a Bit Too Polished but Still Powerful

  • Show more sharing options
  • Copy Link URL Copied!

Sometimes, there’s a reason for tampering with perfection.

In the case of the new remake of “The Miracle Worker,” airing Sunday as a “Wonderful World of Disney” presentation on ABC, it comes down to this: Reaching today’s young people.

While it’s true that most any youngster can grasp the landmark 1962 film version that features Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in Oscar-winning performances as teacher Anne Sullivan and her young charge, the deaf, blind and mute Helen Keller, there are several valid reasons to remake the story.

For one, the original, directed by Arthur Penn, is in black and white, and while that helps to give the movie a superbly moody, gritty tone, it is no doubt off-putting to contemporary kids, who do everything in color, from watching television to playing with their Game Boys.

There’s also something to be said for trying to reach youngsters with new actors, from their own frame of reference, as a 1979 TV movie did by advancing Duke to the Sullivan role and bringing in Melissa Gilbert to play Helen. Now, Helen is portrayed by 8-year-old Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who has been unmissable lately in those voice-altered Pepsi commercials and such movies as “Bicentennial Man” and “Beautiful.”

Eisenberg gives a fierce, committed performance, as does Alison Elliott (“Wings of the Dove”) as Sullivan. Their work goes a long way toward legitimizing this project, which in many other ways has been too cleaned up by writers Monte Merrick and Marsha Norman (who gave the script a dialogue polish) and director Nadia Tass.

As re-envisioned here, the tone is too soaked in sunlight and saturated with color, and too many rough edges have been knocked off the characters. Eisenberg’s Helen is always dressed in crisp, clean clothes, unlike Duke’s, who--more realistically--was often covered in grime from her many falls and willful acts of demolition. Elliott’s Sullivan is less prickly than Bancroft’s, as are Helen’s parents, played by David Strathairn and Kate Greenhouse. Everyone seems more confident, agreeable and self-aware, and speaks in perfectly structured sentences that leave no nuance of characterization unarticulated.

Thankfully, most of the key scenes and many of the lines remain from William Gibson’s original television-to-stage-to-film version, and with them linger the story’s knife-edged humor and heart-tugging drama. This remains a story of strong-willed people who won’t let circumstances limit what they can achieve. Elliott’s Sullivan is determined to instill in Helen--deaf and blind since a fever in infancy--the gift of language, and Eisenberg’s Helen--once she is done testing the strange new person in her life--is hungry to learn.

The pivotal scene remains the long battle at the dining table, with Helen and her teacher engaged in a face-slapping, hair-pulling contest that puts those WWF wrestlers to shame. Watch the actors’ faces, where grim determination and devilish flashes of inspiration communicate more powerfully than any of the overwritten lines of dialogue.

* “The Miracle Worker” airs Sunday, 7-9 p.m., on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

The complete guide to home viewing

Get Screen Gab for everything about the TV shows and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.

the miracle worker 2000 movie review

Daryl H. Miller has been besotted with the arts since age 5, once he was old enough to sing with the church youth choir, and has yet to top the thrill of portraying Billy Bigelow in his rural high school’s production of “Carousel.” He has been covering the arts in Southern California for three decades for the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, LA Weekly, Orange County Register and other publications. He is also a former Times copy editor.

More From the Los Angeles Times

Santa Monica, CA - March 13: Actor Giancarlo Esposito, who stars in AMC's new crime drama, "Parish," poses for a portrait at a water garden on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 in Santa Monica, CA. In the show, Esposito plays Gracian "Gray" Parish, who, after the murder of his son, takes a job as a driver for a shady criminal syndicate, which leads to him evading gunfire and disposing of dead bodies. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Giancarlo Esposito knows how to play the villain. In ‘Parish,’ he steps into the antihero role

March 31, 2024

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1859 -- Pictured: Host Ramy Youssef during Promos in Studio 8H on Tuesday, March 26, 2024 -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

‘SNL’ host Ramy Youssef asks God to ‘free the people of Palestine’ and ‘all the hostages’

March 30, 2024

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 22: Chance Perdomo attends the "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" UK Premiere at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on June 22, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

Chance Perdomo dies in motorcycle crash; ‘Gen V’ actor was 27

LOS ANGELES - CA - MAY 07, 2015 - Actor Louis Gossett Jr., who stars in the TV miniseries "Book of Negroes" photographed in the Los Angeles Times studio, May 07, 2015. (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Louis Gossett Jr., ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ star who broke barriers in Hollywood, dies

March 29, 2024


  1. The Miracle Worker

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review

  2. The Miracle Worker (2000)

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review

  3. The Miracle Worker (2000)

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review

  4. The Miracle Worker 2000

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review

  5. The Miracle Worker (2000)

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review

  6. The miracle worker -2000 full movie-

    the miracle worker 2000 movie review


  1. Disney's 'Miracle Worker' a Bit Too Polished but Still Powerful

    Thankfully, most of the key scenes and many of the lines remain from William Gibson’s original television-to-stage-to-film version, and with them linger the story’s knife-edged humor and heart ...