Judge Clark Douglas stole the magic pearls of Moonacre. Mwahahaha!
A magical journey begins.
"It's not the pearls but the greed in our hearts which brings us this misery."
Facts of the Case
Young Maria Merryweather (Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass) has recently been orphaned, so now she is being forced to move in with her wealthy-but-stern Uncle Benjamin (Ioan Gruffud, Amazing Grace). Maria certainly isn't very happy with her new situation, as she doesn't have any friends and her uncle seems constantly irritated with her. Benjamin informs Maria that she is permitted to wander his vast property, but that she must never, ever under any circumstances wander off into the woods. As she is both bored and a bit rebellious, Maria does indeed venture into the woods on repeated occasions, slowly but surely gathering clues that uncover a dark tale of magic and mystery.
It seems that a long time ago, a Moon Princess (Natasha McElhone, The Truman Show) placed a curse upon the valley in which Uncle Benjamin resides. In the years since, the Merryweather family has been locked in a blood feud with the De Noir family, with each side accusing the other of having stolen some magical pearls. Now it's up to Maria to find the pearls before the rising of the five thousandth moon. If she doesn't, the valley and everyone who lives there will be destroyed.
There's a quote on the back of the DVD case for The Secret of Moonacre that raised my suspicions when I first laid eyes upon it. "The Little White Horse was my favorite childhood book," says J.K. Rowling. You see, The Little White Horse is the Elizabeth Goudge novel upon which The Secret of Moonacre is based. However, why is the novel being mentioned rather than the film itself? At the very least, why aren't there any additional quotes promoting the actual movie? If one of the Harry Potter films were released and featured a quote on the DVD case from some famous fantasy author saying, "I really enjoyed reading the Harry Potter books," you would automatically wonder whether the film was any good, wouldn't you? Anyway, this is my long-ish way of telling you that The Secret of Moonacre pretty much sucks.
The film certainly comes with a pedigree, as it features some noteworthy actors, a budget of $27 million, and was directed by Gabor Csupo (who gave us the surprisingly wonderful family film Bridge to Terabithia). Alas, it's being shipped straight to DVD rather unceremoniously, and it's not hard to see why. This is a tedious, derivative fantasy film that lacks even a single moment that feels original in any way. That's not to say that every scene is garbage, but even the moments that actually work remind us of things we've seen before.
It's been a long while since I read The Little White Horse, but I recall it being a quiet, charming fantasy novel. It even won the Carnegie Medal back in the 1940s. I wish I could say that I was surprised at the way the film has turned the gentle story into a noisy, blustery mess, but that's the name of the game these days. One of the strengths of Csupo's Bridge to Terabithia was the manner in which it placed the focus on the ordinary "real-world" lives of the characters, which made the sparingly employed fantasy sequences actually feel like escapes into something wondrous. The quiet sequences in The Secret of Moonacre are quite good as well, but the film seems insistent on rushing past them and throwing our heroine into a chaotic adventure. Feeling like the level of adventure provided by the book wasn't quite enough, the film adds some additional action sequences and a stupid "countdown to destruction" plot element—if Maria doesn't find the pearls quickly, everyone will die!
In terms of its design, the film seems less interested in creating a distinct world as in borrowing a mishmash of successful elements from other fantasy films. You'll see design elements rather blatantly lifted from The Chronicles of Narnia, Beauty and the Beast, The Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, and even A Clockwork Orange (the De Noir family distinctly resembles the droogies). Likewise, the music by Christian Henson borrows every fantasy cliché in the book, endlessly insisting, "Magic is in the air!" at every possible opportunity. Even the tagline seems recycled—"The magical journey begins," huh? Yeah, that's original (just FYI—a Google search reveals this is also the tagline for the Disneyland Resort Line, which seems about right).
The performances range from mediocre to terrible. Dakota Blue Richards was supposed to become a star after landing the lead in The Golden Compass, but her flat performance (and the film's mediocre box office returns) prevented that. She's equally "meh" in this film, going through the motions dutifully but never really making the character anything special. Still, she fares better than McElhone and Gruffud, who are entirely unconvincing in their complicated roles. And they're all better than Tim Curry (Muppet Treasure Island), whose hammy work is so agonizingly obvious that even three-year-olds will be rolling their eyes at the lack of subtlety.
The DVD transfer is slightly underwhelming for a glossy fantasy film like this, lacking in detail at times and suffering during long shots. Flesh tones are also a bit pale at times, too. Still, blacks are relatively deep and the image is passable enough. Audio is fine, though the music overwhelms things a bit at times. Supplements include a "Making-of Featurette" (23 minutes), "Cast Interviews" (32 minutes), "Behind-the-Scenes Footage" (19 minutes), some deleted scenes (11 minutes) and a trailer.
A tiresome, unconvincing fantasy flick that comes nowhere close to doing justice to its source material. If you haven't seen it, watch the lovely Bridge to Terabithia instead.
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