THOUGH IT LACKS some of the wide-eyed childlike appeal of the original, "Polly Comin' Home" is a winner in the family viewing category. The sequel nearly matches the quality of its highly laudable predecessor "Polly."
Last season's NBC Disney special updated the Pollyanna story by moving it from Victorian England to a black community in 1950s Alabama, and putting it to music and dance.
Keshia Knight Pulliam returns as the title character, the orphan who moves in with her overly straight-laced Aunt Polly, who is again played by fellow "Cosby Show" veteran Phylicia Rashad.
When we last saw Polly, she had been severely injured in a fall, the fate of this innocent child bringing together the divided factions within this community.
As "Polly Comin' Home" opens at 7 Sunday night on WMAR-Channel 2, Polly is doing just that, returning to the town of Harrington after a long stay in the hospital. She is, of course, no worse for the wear, meaning director and choreographer Debbie Allen (Rashad's sister) doesn't have to pull any punches in the dance numbers.
"Polly" did not shy from the racial issue. Indeed, the issue's divisiveness was one of many that this sunny-side-up youngster helped to calm. But questions of race are more central to "Polly Comin' Home."
Certainly William Blinn's script can be chided for not being a realistic portrayal of the situation in Alabama in the mid-1950s, but it cannot be knocked for its desire to deliver to its young viewers a positive message on this crucial matter.
The major new character introduced in "Polly Comin' Home" is Dabney Mayhew, the new headmaster for the town's black orphanage, the major charity of the well-heeled Aunt Polly. Played by the immensely talented Anthony Newley, he's from the British old school.
He is shocked when he arrives at his destination to learn that his new charges are all youngsters of color. He is even more shocked when he learns that the woman who hired him -- Aunt Polly -- is similarly hued. Appropriately humbled by this revelation of his prejudice, Mayhew sets about to make these young Alabamians into proper Etonians, setting off an exuberant, impressive production number in the orphanage.
At the head of this number is the most impressive member of the "Polly" cast, young Brandon Adams, who reprises his role as Jimmy Bean with his combination of wonderful dancing ability and a likable screen presence.
Other top-notch song-and-dance segments include a somewhat racy dream sequence set in Atlanta and a gospel number that Allen seems to be using to pay tribute to the dance "Cry," choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey. She paid a similar tribute to Ailey's "Revelations" with the gospel sequence in "Polly."
Eventually, Jimmy Bean becomes enamored of what he hears about a young minister named King who's preaching in nearby Montgomery. The search for King's message parallels Harrington's search for a new mayor now that its black and white communities are merging and Aunt Polly's search for domestic tranquillity.
Standouts in the cast, all returning from "Polly," include Dorian Harewood as Aunt Polly's potential suitor, Celeste Holme as the somewhat maternal voice of reason in the white community, Larry Riley as The Rev. Gillis and Barbara Montgomery as Mrs. Conley.
"Polly Comin' Home" is good and good for you.
*** This sequel to last season's excellent "Polly" takes these updated characters from "Pollyanna" -- they live in a black community in Alabama in the 1950s -- and sees what happens when Polly gets back from the hospital and Aunt Polly has hired a straight-laced Englishman to run the orphanage, while a new minister named King is making a name for himself in nearby Montgomery.
CAST: Keshia Knight Pulliam, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Newley
TIME: Sunday at 7 p.m.
CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)