With Thanksgiving comes the return of Canada’s most famous literary orphan to PBS with the second “Anne of Gables” installment. “The Good Stars,” the second film in a trilogy, continues the adventures of poor orphan girl Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine), who’s finally found a home with elderly couple Matthew (Martin Sheen) and Marilla Cuthbert (Sara Botsford) at Green Gables. When last we saw Anne, she had settled into her new home and made a bosom friend out of Diana (Julia Lalonde). Taking on the adolescent phase of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Edwardian novel series, “The Good Stars” parallels the growing pains that Anne herself is going through as she becomes a teenager.
Before delving into some of the film’s missteps though, a few positive notes for what is overall an enjoyable hour and a half spent on Prince Edward Island. We are happy to say that Anne getting older has apparently helped get rid of the glaringly awful fake freckles that plagued her last year. Also, with expectations tempered from the first film, Martin Sheen’s overly energetic and talkative Matthew Cuthbert isn’t as jarring this time around. He’s not the Matthew Cuthbert we knew from the novel, but he’s still kind-hearted and understands Anne, and that’s what’s important.
“The Good Stars” is a fun series of scrapes as Ballentine portrays Anne with enthusiasm and joy. It’s hard not to be charmed by her youthful imagination and impulsivity as she struggles with pride, vanity and what it means to be “sensible.” She’s growing up, and therefore has teenager-specific woes and decisions she needs to make that inevitably blow up in her face. It’s about as instructive and inoffensive as good family-friendly fare can be, with beautiful woodsy countryside backdrops to lift the spirit.
Tone and messaging, however, aren’t where the film falters. Instead, like a gangly teenager, the storytelling struggles as it grows, trying to bridge the gap between the innocence of youth to the greater maturity of adulthood. At least a few times “The Good Stars” lays the groundwork for something, but then appears to cop out at the last minute and not follow through. It’s almost as if important scenes have been edited out. In particular, purists won’t be pleased that one of Anne’s most infamous misadventures from the novel — one that results in an injury — is defused and comes to nothing.
This decision seems odd because erasing that outcome means the loss of the dramatic character revelations that came with it. Also, if anything is characteristic about Anne, it’s that she fails spectacularly, but takes the lessons learned from those mistakes to heart. If the film preferred not to have its heroine model risky behavior (which she has done many times already), it would’ve been better to remove this scene altogether.
Possibly because of Sheen’s star power and charisma, Matthew has been given more of the spotlight in this installment than his sister Marilla (Sara Botsford). In order to lay the groundwork for an important storyline in the upcoming final installment, new scenes had been added to the narrative that are often heavy-handed and feel out of place. Expanding the world to three films didn’t appear to give the story room to breathe, but rather makes it far more cluttered.
Perhaps worst of all, Anne’s relationship with her school rival/eventual love interest, Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu) doesn’t feel earned. Because “Anne of Green Gables” has been split into three parts, “The Good Stars” got the bulk of Anne’s childhood love-hate relationship with Gilbert. Unfortunately, that means the event that set off their enmity happened in Part 1, which was a good year ago for American viewers. Taking time to reestablish how much Anne’s pride is tweaked, and how they’re the school’s sharpest students, would go a long way with explaining why Anne and Gilbert are suddenly locked in a bitter rivalry in the classroom. Both Ballentine and Haytaoglu imbue energy into their performances, but thus far, they don’t appear to have that necessary fire and chemistry that would explain any sort of impassioned interaction of any kind. Their competition doesn’t feel genuine, and this muddles their motivations as their relationship shifts.
All of these gripes aside, Anne is still a winning and aspirational character. Although this series of films isn’t as dark as Netflix’s more controversial “Anne With and E,” it can’t hide its feminist roots and occasional progressive spirit. At the Television Critics Association press tour panel for “The Good Stars” this past summer, Ballentine weighed in on how the entire “Anne” series is about trailblazing for women.
“She really is a very early feminist,” said Ballentine. “And the novel was written by a woman, and she published it in her own name very early on, where women were not doing that. That was not the norm. And so it’s definitely a life-changer for many people. And having Anne be such a strong female character, have her be very spunky and shape all the people around her, boys and girls, it’s really cool.”
“Anne of Green Gables: The Good Stars” airs on Thanksgiving Day at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.