"Sarafina!" is based on a successful stage musical about children in a poor South African township, but it definitely loses something in the transition to film.
Where the play was apparently able to blend jubilant musical numbers with scenes of stylized, stagebound violence, the movie portrays the horrors of apartheid all too realistically, which makes for an uneasy transition to the songs and dances. Instead of underscoring the pride and self-esteem these children seek, despite the horrors of their day-to-day lives, it feels more like zapping the remote control from CNN to MTV.
I don't mean that to sound overly frivolous; if noble intentions automatically made great movies, "Sarafina!" would be among the greatest. But the makers' intentions seem inadvertently undermined by underdeveloped char-acters and vivid scenes of brutality.
The film's best asset is Leleti Khumalo, repeating her Tony-nominated Broadway role, as the title character. She lights up the screen in what is truly a star-making turn. (Whoopi Goldberg, top-billed as an idealistic teacher, has a rather small role.)
"Sarafina!" is rated PG-13, which seems rather tame considering the amount of violence here. There is also some profanity.