Judge Kristin Munson thinks these kids are a right bunch of Bastables.
By God, Bastable, have you got children worth having!
You might want to swap that exclamation point for a question mark.
Turn of the century children all have an abundance of pluck, but the Bastable clan must have asbestos in the curtains and lead paint on their nursery walls. How else can you explain why a 13-year-old thinks a loan shark is a kind old gentleman with lots of cash to spare? Or why shoving a bailiff in a hole and threatening him with sharpened sticks seems like a good idea? Or how any of this is supposed to keep these motherless little monsters out of the poor house?
In Edith Nesbit's original novel, The Treasure Seekers, the children are much younger and the narration by oldest brother Oswald makes it obvious that their attempts to "restore the fortunes of the fallen House of Bastable" are silly kids' games, with the grown-ups giving them a guinea or two just to get them off their backs. The movie chooses to turn them into a lawless tribe whose good intentions and impaired logic barely keeps them out of the "brats in need of a good thumping" category.
This 1996 adaptation turns a simple children's classic into an overwrought kiddie melodrama, complete with synth soundtrack pumping cartoony cues over the action. The children's series of money-earning schemes becomes a race against an evil money-lender who's going to take their house in just a few days. Okay, so a family film needs a more corporal antagonist than "grinding poverty," but the script is full of weird and unnecessary changes like turning Father into a short-tempered, neglectful inventor and adding a creepy romantic undercurrent between 15-year-old Dora and the grown man living next door. The whole thing has a surreal, Alice in Wonderland vibe, where the kids meet a string of nonsense characters played by recognizable Brits in terrible moustaches in encounters that don't add up until the incredibly fortuitous finale.
But maybe I'm being overly analytical. Younger kids will get a kick out of a couple of slapstick chase scenes, and the young actors aren't the teeth-numbing cuties that clutter up Nick and The Disney Channel, even if Dora is the only one who gets a lick of character development. There's also a host of recognizable talent, including Ian Richardson (Brazil), Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire), and Keira Knightley (The Duchess) as a German princess with an intermittent French accent.
The DVD transfer boasts a grain-infested full frame picture and muddy 2.0 stereo, but at least Questar makes an attempt at some educational extras. A snapshot bio of Edith Nesbit covers the basics and even mentions her socialist activities, but leaves out the part about her swinging 1870's lifestyle, free love not being very family friendly. "The Bastables' England" aims to put the anachronistic adaptation into a larger historical context, which might have succeeded if it weren't exactly one minute long. Four discussion questions are provided to jumpstart a dialog with your kids but leaves the most important one off the menu: If an adult man lets himself into your house, knowing you're underage and all alone, should you be treating him like a lovable rascal?
The Treasure Seekers isn't terribly memorable, but it isn't terribly terrible either, just enough to make it a mock-worthy 97 minutes for nitpicking cynics like me. Your little 'uns probably won't care and will come away with the lesson that disobedience always ends badly…except when it sets off a string of coincidences that saves the family just in time.
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