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Harriet The Spy

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG (For Mild Language and Some Thematic Elements)

Running Time: 101 minutes

Starring: Michelle Trachtenberg, Vanessa Lee Chester, Gregory Smith, Eartha Kitt and Rosie O'Donnell

Written by: Douglas Petrie and Theresa Rebeck
Adaptation by: Greg Taylor and Julie Talen
Based on the novel by: Louise Fitzhugh

Directed by: Bronwen Hughes

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $19.95

Features: None

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Stereo Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (16 Scenes)

Released: May 27th, 2003

 

 

Let's be honest: it's really hard to create a good flick for children. It's also pretty hard to define what a good flick for kids actually is. Personally, I think an ideal film for children is not only one that entertains, but has interesting characters around their age that they can relate to as well as strong plotting and something to take away at the very end. I also think a good movie aimed for kids also pleases adults, unleashing the kid inside of them and making them feel like that their children (if they have any, of course) are watching something worthwhile. A good kid flick should contain things that will also make adults laugh, satisfy them and move them as well.

I think "Harriet The Spy" is a pretty underrated kids flick if you ask me. It made a modest gross during its summer 1996 release, and from then on it's come to be somewhat of a staple in family video libraries and cable television, but nothing too major. Still, it's a quality family film and you'd probably be surprised how many kids are familiar with it. I think the film can even be credited with jump starting Rosie O'Donnell's relationship with the Nickelodeon network (doesn't she always host the kids awards?) and her work into more family oriented features (she's come along way in the past two decades - from dirty stand-up comic to character actress to talk show host to uh... spending her time freely now). Kids loved and still love Rosie in this movie, and it's around the time where she was getting a whole lot of recognition because of her highly successful syndicated talk show. It was also around this time when O'Donnell announced she'd be cutting back on the film parts due to her show and adopting a baby and all.

The film, based on the 1960s novel by Louise Fitzhugh, follows sixth grader Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Tratchenberg). Harriet is a budding journalist who also tends to spy on people. She writes down everything she observes and thinks in her secret notebook. Harriet is also a bit insecure, probably due to competition from a nasty classmate and it seems her parents are never there for her. But she does have support and friendship within her nanny Golly (Rosie O'Donnell), who is almost like a surrogate mother to her (or a Gilmore Girl, take your pick). But soon Golly leaves the Welsch family and from then on, Harriet's family starts to fall into shambles. Things take a turn for the worst when Harriet's friends discover her secret notebook and all the gossip she has written about them. Soon, no one likes Harriet and everyone's trying to get back at her. Can Harriet win back the respect of her peers? Or more importantly, can Harriet grow into her own, secure person?

"Harriet The Spy" is a pretty breezy film, but it sticks with you without being overly manipulative which is something I greatly appreciated. Bronwen Hughes, the director, brings a very nice touch to the movie. Yes, it's a bit corny at times but Hughes moves the story at a great pace and balances the interesting characters with the story nicely (not to mention a great, quirky score from Jamshied Sharfi that perfectly fits in). Hughes also makes the movie stand out in its own unique way as far as its visual and narrative style. The bright colors and excellent production design are nice, but then there's Harriet telling the story. Harriet in some respects is a loner, and her thoughts on the everyday and her own personal life (wonderfully narrated by the actress who plays her, Michelle Trachtenberg) come across as a bit haunting.

The script is quite good, as all the characters serve a purpose and have a unique voice. The dialogue is sometimes depressing (during the film's more sad moments), but usually it's fun, witty and snappy. Thankfully, all of it is natural. I don't think I've read the book so I can't compare the original novel to this 1990s adaptation, but I'm sure the film was made more modern and has a little bit of extra stuff added into it. The plotting in the movie adds up and is pretty thick, not to mention there are a few subplots as far as the people Harriet spies on (which pays off nicely too). It's as if there was emotions and feelings going into this all along. When Harriet feels alienated, the viewer feels alienated. In this day and age, it's pretty rare for a children's movie to be so well-developed in all of its aspects. The script is logical, is even and makes sense. The climax and ending are particuarly satisfying, since they're quite relatable in the emotions they try to convey.

But within all of Harriet's eavesdropping, what I think makes "Harriet The Spy" pretty appealing is what the movie is trying to say. It gives us life lessons learned the hard way, but not by smacking our heads over with them. The film is basically about loyalty and friendship, and how these are things we must treasure and not take advantage of for our own purposes. The film also deals with honesty, being careful with what we say or think (because words and thoughts can really do a lot of damage), how we shouldn't judge others based on what they have, what they don't have or how they feel about certain things and how we shouldn't always go out and make assumptions about others. It also deals with animosity within friends, family and the world and how we have to try and control ourselves at times. These are exactly the lessons that stick with you for life, and definitely the kinds of things people learn around the sixth grade. The film does feature more of these kind of morals, and believe it or not, all of this is not done in a preachy way.

The acting in the movie is top-notch - the casting for this film was simply great. While Michelle Trachtenberg would go on to act in more movies (and the TV show "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" which just ended its run), her breakthrough role was in "Harriet The Spy" and she did a damn good job in this movie. Trachtenberg captures a lovely sense of innocence, a true sense of curiousity and a perfect sense of angst as she comes to grips with her family, friends and the world as she must realize what she's done wrong, what she needs to learn and the damage she's done. Rosie O'Donnell is also perfect in this movie. Her role is small, but fits nicely. O'Donnell is great as the fun, loving and guiding force. It's not forced at all, and there's a fine sense of warmth to her. She also shares good chemistry with Trachenberg. The other supporting performances are nice, and it's worth pointing out that Gregory Smith (now of the hit show "Everwood" and the horrendous flick "Small Soldiers") was in this movie. He does quite a good job here too.

In all, "Harriet The Spy" is light, entertaining but gives you something to take away when the film is done. The film is well shot, it's unique and is well acted. Simply put, this is a movie you probably want your kids to watch... not to mention yourself.

 

"Harriet The Spy" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and it looks slightly above mediocre. It seems like Paramount put no effort into cleaning this movie up and did a straight through transfer. The transfer has a lot of good elements, like lack of edge enhancment, solid black levels, excellent detail and some very fine color saturation that is incredibly bold and really pops at you. The colors in the movie (and there are a lot) remain consistent which is good, not to mention the fleshtones look pretty spot on. But then there are some not so nice things. This print is so dirty, and that's it's biggest flaw. All the scratches, lines, nicks, blemishes and dirt pieces are very distracting and are literally all over the image. Also, the image is filled with some noise, has shimmering, appears to be a bit faded and is also quite grainy - I think if the film looked sharper it'd be better off. The transfer does a lot wrong but it does a lot right. It could be worse.

 

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on this DVD is pretty impressive and really took me by surprise. The dynamics are much stronger than I expected and fidelity is remarkably high. Dialogue is nicely centered and is quite crisp, while there are some clever surround effects that feature some great panning and imaging effects (the kids fooling around, some running, Harriet's parents fighting and the like). The surround effects are a bright spot in the mix, but what I thought really tied this mix together and brought it to life was the music. The film features a good deal of music and it really gives off quite a punch - the mixing with the music is flavorful and incredibly creative. Subwoofer use is much more powerful than you'd expect, while bass lines are pretty deep. It's not a reference quality mix or anything, but it certainly stands out in its own unique way and is worth listening to. Also included is a French stereo surround track, English Dolby Surround track, English subtitles and true English closed captions.

 

Nothing at all. No trailer (which I remember seeing often in 1996) and not even the "Hey Arnold!" cartoon "24 Hours To Live" which was paired with this movie in theaters. "24 Hours To Live" is one of the greatest "Hey Arnold!" episodes of all time!

 

"Harriet The Spy" is a charming, enjoyable film that both kids and their parents can enjoy. While the film has certianly gained strong status as a fine family movie, this DVD edition doesn't offer any supplements. The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is fine but the transfer is a bit disappointing. Nonetheless, if you liked the movie and want to own it on DVD, here's what is likely to be your only chance.