With the steadfast popularity of the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series, studios have scrounged around in the deep satchel of children's fantasy novels for stories worth bringing to the big screen. Some, such as The Spiderwick Chronicles and the excellent Bridge to Terabithia, have seen robust success by capturing kids whose mind's eye clashes with a whimsical environment, blurring the line between reality and daydreaming in ways that encourage active imaginations and thrill viewers in a rush of family-friendly action. The Secret of Moonacre attempts a similar feat, adapting "The Little White Horse" with attentive, well-groomed production design and a fine cast. It's a shame, then, that Terabithia director Gabor Csupo's take on the the Carnegie Medal-winning book lacks the cinematic polish and inventiveness of his first picture, causing it to slump in both pacing and performance gumption.
The Secret of Moonacre moves along a familiar, easy-to-anticipate path: teenage orphan Maria, after her indebted father dies and leaves her nothing but a dusty old book, goes to Moonacre Manor with her wacky governess to live with an uncle she never knew she had. Sir Benjamin Merryweather's a bitter, harsh (and wealthy) recluse who warns her not to venture into the forests around the manor, where marauders loom. To bide the time, she explores the manor's interior to find out who's been dropping off freshly-baked cookies in her room, as well as reading the book her father left her. The book chronicles the life of the Moon Princess, a woman blessed with a set of magical pearls that, on her wedding day, cause a power-driven argument that spurns a feud between the DeNoir and Merryweather families -- along with a magical curse that can only be lifted by a "pure heart".
While The Secret of Moonacre feels like it's treading on familiar ground with an orphaned pre-teen discovering a magical world, it's partially because Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse" -- penned in 1946 -- actually influenced many modern children's fantasy authors with its whimsical story. (Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling claims it was her favorite book as a child.) As much as that may be the case, Gabor Csupo doesn't handle the adaptation with enough distinctiveness to break it away from the pack, giving it little opportunity to prove that it's not just another fantasy tale vying for attention -- like superior efforts Inkheart and The Golden Compass. Every element feels lived-in and seen before, from the spark driving Maria's curiosity in the Moon Princess lore to the purpose of the pearls and the interfamily rivalry, pouring into a clichéd, 11th hour dash to save Moonacre. Instead of breathing new life into the genre with one of its pioneers, it never elevates beyond being more than a competent doppelganger.
That familiarity drags down some of the energy that The Secret of Moonacre could've embodied, which doesn't do any favors to sluggish pacing or a bland, scenery-chewing script. Watching Maria acclimate to her new home never offers more than mild curiosity towards seeing how Moonacre Manor collides with the fantasy realm, while also sparking some watch-checking as it lackadaisically meanders. As Maria peeks through doors and bickers with her grumpy, preventative uncle, whom Ioan Gruffudd uncharacteristically hams up with overzealous exertions, it tediously fleshes out the characters in the periphery of the spunky heroine -- whom Golden Compass star Dakota Blue Richards handles with fitting gusto. And the wilted intrigue never really spruces up, even after it gets an injection of peril and a helping of enchanting mythos discovery when Maria finally navigates the forests of Moonacre.
The Secret of Moonacre is a competent affair, though, and it's not a low-rent one either; at a fairly substantial budget approaching $27 million, it compensates for the fumbled theatrics by captivating on a visual level with well-hewn costumes and rustic, textured set design. But what it's lacking is a spark of magic under the eye for aesthetic allure, a rush of immediacy to throttle Maria's early moments of abandon towards the bold, wisdom-studded climax, filled with saccharine romantic whims and destiny-laden theatrics. It manages to make even magical tsunamis, moon-controlling pearls, and mystical beasts -- not to mention Tim Curry in a blustering role as the marauder's leader -- feel unpolished and in need of a cup of very strong coffee, interesting to look at but made stiff by the monotonous pace it takes in getting there. Quite simply, Gabor Csupo needed to bring more of the drama, the energy, the heart and the magic he concocted in Bridge to Terabithia to this one.
Video and Audio:
The Secret of Moonacre weaves a moderate amount of magic with its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, offering bold colors in this lushly-photographed fantasy. Detail isn't the strongest, growing murky at times in the costume design and against contours, while mosquito noise and a bit of mild aliasing cloud the image on a semi-frequent basis. But the boldness of the film's palette comes through well here, capturing the rich skin tones and blasts of color in sets and articles of clothing, while also having a faint eye for a few minuscule textures -- the cords in Merryweather's jacket, dirt on a mirror, and crackled paint on a piano. It's a fine transfer, though somewhat underwhelming given the photography's potential.
The music mostly dominates the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which relegates most of the activity to the front channels. A few scenes will stretch out the surround design's spaciousness, such as the sounds in a forest and the furious rushes of water later on, but it's mostly a dialogue-centered affair with hearty sound effects pouring from the center: chopped vegetables, clanking plates, and others. A Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is also available, along with optional English SDH subtitles.
Making-Of Featurette (23:30, 16x9):
Director Gabor Csupo and his producers first sit down for interviews discussing their affection for the source material and for the script in general, as well as talking about casting Dakota Blue Richards out of 200+ girls for the role after her success with The Golden Compass. Richards talks about her character a bit in an interview span, as does Tim Curry and Ioan Gruffudd. The producers also talk about the reason behind the title "The Secret of Moonacre", and what exactly the secret is. Clips from the film mingle with the interviews, culminating into a fine low-energy assembly piece.
E1 Entertainment have also included the raw stretch of Interviews (32:27, 16x9) used for the Making-of piece, a healthy amount of Deleted Scenes (11:19, 4x3), a hunk of Behind-the-Scenes Footage (19:27, 16x9) that offers a candid, untouched glimpse at the standard set shooting on the film, and a Theatrical Trailer (1:42, 16x9) that exhibits a higher level of energy than the film itself gives off.
If you've exhausted the trove of children's fantasy films available, then The Secret of Moonacre will offer a little satisfaction to those in search of something new. Splendid costume work and a bit of budgeted yet effective visual effects add to the mood, while the story buried within the film -- an adaptation of "The Little White Horse" -- will mildly satisfy the itch for a new whimsical tale. With that said, Gabor Csupo's follow-up to Bridge to Terabithia falls quite a few paces behind the rest of the quality children's fantasies to come out over the past few years, hampered by awkward scripting choices, an unengaging level of energy, and an overall lack of polish. Check out Terabithia first, if you haven't, or move on to the likes of Inkheart and The Golden Compass (or eve Stardust) for something different than the standard Potter / Narnia modern fare. With those options exhausted, then The Secret of Moonacre comes with a very lukewarm nod towards a Rental.