Reviewed by: Marcus Mann
Starring: Michelle Trachtenberg, Vanessa Lee Chester, Gregory Smith, Eartha Kitt, Rosie O'Donnell / Director: Bronwen Hughes
Cable television’s Nickelodeon channel breaks into the feature film business with Louise Fitzhugh’s best-selling children’s novel (published in 1964) about an 11-year-old girl who spies on her parents, neighbors and friends. From the minute you arrive at the theater you will be reminded of how well Nickelodeon has advertised this film, children out numbered adults by a large percentage (reminding me of working in our church’s nursery). Parents beware, the producers of this film have gone to a lot of expense to get your children to drag you to the theater.
Harriet M. Welsch is an 11-year-old spy want-to-be. She is only in the sixth grade but she’s already an ace: very little happens in her neighborhood without Harriet seeing it and writing it down in her secret “Private” notebooks. She wants to see everything and know everything and so (as she writes in her spy book) “That is why I am a spy!” Guided by her friend/mentor/nanny, Golly (Rosie O'Donnell) she’s learning a lot about life, and a lot about her neighbors, in hopes of someday being a famous author.
But when her friends read her secret notes, filled with observations about them, they are embarrassed and upset. Even her best friends Sport (the son of a very poor writer) and Janie (a mad scientist in training) get angry and reject Harriet. The sixth grade class forms a spy-catcher’s club to get back at her, which of course causes Harriet to plan equal retaliation. In the end Harriet must struggle with the issues of person identity and the value of friendship.
This film is fresh and stylish. It is remarkably well acted for a children’s film and the characters are very well developed—I think I went to school with some of those kids when I was in sixth grade. There was no cursing or vulgarities. These, however, are the only good aspects of this movie.
What was wrong with the film? The list is almost too long to address in a concise review. One major problem was that the story didn’t begin until approximately 1 hour and 5 minutes had elapsed. The first hour was devoted solely to building characters, without even a hint of a plot. Thus the main story line was established, developed and concluded within a time of only 40 minutes—barely more than a normal Nickolodean show. For this reason, I overheard one mother exclaim to her children as they exited the theater “That was the lamest movie I ever saw!” (the most accurate 8 word review I’ve heard).
Another major problem is the way that the authority figures are portrayed. It is just another film which gives little or no respect to adults. It is ironic that the director assures, “The film of ‘Harriet the Spy’ is absolutely going to retain the essence of the book, but, at the same time, the energy of it and the way the kids talk and their relationship to adults will be very, very much in the nineties.” Perhaps this is the main problem. Hollywood appears to have little idea of how kids relate (and should relate) to adults.
There are numerous other problems with this film that need not be mentioned here. Let’s just say that this film had wonderful potential and good intentions, but was not able to deliver a good product. “Harriet the Spy” clearly wanted to teach something… but it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to teach. The fuzziness of both the morals and the plot makes this a very forgettable movie. Don’t bother going to see it.
Year of Release—1996