Directed By Gabor Csupo
Starring Dakota Blue Richards, Ioan Gruffudd, Natascha McElhone and Tim Curry
Newly-orphaned 13 year old Maria Merryweather (Richards) is left with nothing more than a hefty book upon her father’s death – a fairytale story of the Merryweather family’s long-standing feud with the De Noir clan over a mystical set of wish-bestowing pearls and the subsequent curse that’s befallen Moonacre Valley. With book in hand, she’s forced to leave London with her Governess Miss Heliotrope to live with her uncle Sir Benjamin (Gruffudd), a cold and distant man who’s the picture of Dickensian arrogance. Faced with warnings to avoid the woods and not to explore the house, naturally she does what any sane child would – the exact opposite – and quickly discovers that the book is no work of fiction (Shock, horror) and she’s destined to save Moonacre and unite the warring families.
Riding the coat-tails of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s easy to see why this adaptation of Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse got lost in the big fantasy film shuffle; light on action and character, The Secret of Moonacre lacks the scale of Narnia and Lord of the Rings or the depth and sense of adventure of Harry Potter, and never reaches the epic heights of either.
Burdened by some uncomfortable acting (Gruffudd’s performance is often cringeworthy, and Tim Curry is hammier than a butcher’s shop window without being given the chance to memorably chew scenery), Moonacre is certainly a flawed film. The forced comic relief is almost uniformly awful – Juliet Stevenson starts out a prim and proper Austen caricature before bizarrely slipping into broad antics which amount to little more than fainting and belching a lot – while the story tends to veer between predictable and silly (every single generation of the Merryweather and De Noir clan look like Tim Curry, Ioan Gruffudd and Natasha McElhone).
With that said, though flawed, The Secret of Moonacre’s still a charming and enjoyable little film. Dakota Blue Richards – the best thing in the otherwise muddled The Golden Compass – is carving out a niche for herself as the saving grace of flawed fantasy films. While the rest of the cast ranges from bland to embarrassing, thankfully the film rests on Richards’ shoulders, and with a natural ability and eminently likeable presence, she manages to inject much of the wonder and magic that’s rendered absent elsewhere in the film by lazy performances and clumsy writing. She’s quite wonderful, it’s just a shame the performances surrounding her range from comatose to pantomime. The production design is often incredibly impressive, from the lavish sets to the extravagant wardrobe of Maria and the eclectic medieval-samurai-punk-urchin fusion outfits of the De Noir villains all lending the world some semblance of personality. Director Csupo has a great eye for visuals too, and while he’s let down by a budget that clearly didn’t stretch to a decent CG team (the visual effects, though sparse, are mostly awful, with a shot of Maria on horseback late in the film looking like it was knocked up with MS Paint), there’s still some great shots there. The pace of Moonacre is refreshingly slow too, and while that may dissuade some viewers, in a sea of action-heavy epics, it’s nice to find a fantasy film that’s a simple, old-fashioned counterpoint to more grandiose fare like Narnia.
Csupo, not helped by the lazier performances, never manages to achieve the same sense of magic and childhood wonder as in his last film (the surprisingly good and shockingly touching Bridge to Terabithia) but while flawed, The Secret of Moonacre still manages to conjure up a pinch of magic. It’s an endearingly old-fashioned little fantasy film, and a great choice for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The Blu-Ray is unfortunately stuffed with a gigantic heap of nothingness, with a static menu, the obligatory scene selection and audio set-up options all there is to find. Hell, at least Warner Bros. are honest about their lack of extras; the back of the case has a handy note stating ‘Special Features: None’. I suppose pointing out their own lack of effort is better than attempting to pass off menus and chapter selection as ‘Special Features’, but the lack of even a trailer is rather surprising. Fantasy adaptations are prime fodder for loaded DVDs, with glimpses at the production design and insight into the changes from book to screen all no-brainer additions that could’ve been included, so it’s a shame that the disc is completely bare. Still, with the Blu-Ray, fans of the film will get a crisp 1080p HD transfer and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (and a 5.1 audio descriptive track), so at least it looks gorgeous, even if there’s no extras.
The Secret of Moonacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk, where it’s currently only £9.99.