Angela Stewart (Jill Scott), the new counselor at a junior high school, is hiding a secret: she’s actually an angel on a mission. It’s a revelation that leaves her new boss, principal Bruce Banks (Barry Watson), in disbelief. Also stars Ben Daon, Robert Moloney, and Victoria Bidewell. Based on the classic 1980s television series by Michael Landon. Directed by Stacey K. Black.
Michael Landon’s classic 1980s series gets a modern reboot with this TV movie, which aired on Lifetime last fall. The premise is the same: an undercover angel spends time on Earth, helping people facing a personal crisis.
The original series featured Landon as the angel, who partnered with an ex-cop (fellow “Little House on the Prairie” alum Victor French) as they took on a new “assignment” from on-high each week. The reboot features Grammy-winning singer turned actress Jill Scott (“Black Lightning”) as Angela Stewart, an angel in disguise doing the Lord’s work by helping broken people.
Angela partners up with Bruce Banks (Watson, “7th Heaven”) a high school principal who really wants to make a difference. In the movie, Angela is hired at Bruce’s school as a temporary counselor. Her first test is Cody (Ben Daon), a bright kid now struggling in school after the death of his mother. Cody’s dad Jeff (Robert Moloney) doesn’t want to talk about her passing, and he has given up on his dream of opening a restaurant.
The plot is the same sort of storyline that you’d see in the original series: family drama that works out for the best with a little faith and love. Sure, it sounds formulaic, and even a bit corny, but in Landon’s hands (he executive produced the series and wrote many of the episodes), the original series was earnest and inspirational. It paved the way for shows like “Touched by an Angel” and still has a following to this day.
The reboot movie, however, has its shortcomings. The melodrama is way over the top, and the writing just isn’t up to the task, even with Christopher Landon (Michael’s son) among the credited writers. When the characters in the story over-explain their feelings or react in non-sensical ways, it’s a clear sign the writers and director don’t trust the material enough. There’s a solid cast here with some very good actors, but the dialogue just doesn’t feel authentic, so the performances don’t hit the mark.
It also doesn’t help that Jill Scott and Barry Watson just don’t have a lot of chemistry together. In the original series, Michael Landon and Victor French had the benefit of working together previously on “Little House on the Prairie,” and their chemistry was obvious. Although Scott and Watson are appealing actors in their own right, they just don’t click together.
The writing often fails the best efforts of the cast. Scott’s Angela doesn’t do a very good job at hiding the fact that she’s different, and then just announces to Bruce that she’s an angel without really proving it. Bruce thinks she’s crazy – with good reason – and even we as viewers are questioning her judgement and decision-making.
Eventually, Angela proves to Bruce she’s an angel, with some divine insight and a few supernatural moves. It’s done for dramatic effect at the end of the film, but it makes you wonder why she didn’t do this from the start. In addition, the movie takes more of a generic approach to spirituality, unlike Michael Landon, who presented a much more definitive presentation of the Christian faith. The new version offered more of a safe, “New Agey” spirituality, which feels shallow and ironically, less believable.
The film has its moments, and there is a genuinely solid moral to this story about forgiveness, resilience, and acceptance. A lot of that is due to the likeability of the actors involved, and it’s too bad the filmmakers didn’t quite grasp what made the original series so appealing.
Although the movie was supposed to be a pilot for a potential future series, I have yet to see anything from Lifetime about it. That may be because they also found the movie underwhelming. There’s potential there, but it must grasp the intangibles that made the original series a classic.
VIDEO AND AUDIO
The standard definition of a DVD isn’t going to do any transfer any favors, and that’s the case with “Highway to Heaven.” Colors are faithful, but flesh tones are often a bit muddled. There is some good detail and sharp lines, but you’re basically looking at a broadcast-quality image.
The audio is a 5.1 Dolby mix, and it sounds quite good for a TV movie. Granted, there aren’t a lot of sound effects, low end, or surround effects to go crazy over, but there is good clarity and an even balance between the dialogue and the music.
No special features are included on the disc. Not even a digital copy. It’s a missed opportunity, especially if Lifetime was looking to continue the movie as a series. Including some basic promotional featurettes or other extras would have generated some more interest in a series. We don’t give out zeros on our category ratings, but this disc barely earns the .5 that we do give it.
Release Date: March 1, 2022
Running Time: 87 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English Dolby 5.1
Subtitles: English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing