The Secret of Moonacre, aka The Moon Princess

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Veteran animator Gabor Csupo, who made a fluid transition to live action with 2007's acclaimed "Bridge to Terabithia," has taken on another children's classic with "The Secret of Moonacre," but this time the magic realism isn't quite as captivating.

Said to be one of "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling's inspirations, Elizabeth Goudge's "The Little White Horse" features a freshly orphaned heroine who is sent to live in her chilly uncle's mysterious estate, but the screen adaptation is cursed with a creeping lethargy that keeps the enchantment in check.

While his previous film's well-paced mix of the contemporary and the fantastical was equally appealing to kids of both genders, "Moonacre," with its female lead and focus on princesses and unicorns, would obviously play more strongly to young girls, who can be a tricky demographic to draw to the megaplex.

A domestic distributor game to meet that challenge (it's being released by Warner Bros. in the U.K.) could still see some modest results, but the European co-production likely will shine more brightly overseas.

Nicely carrying the film is Dakota Blue Richards (what is it about all these gifted young Dakotas?) in the role of 13-year-old Maria Merryweather, whose sole inheritance from her late father is a musty, leather-bound book called "The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre Valley."

Before she has a chance to really get into it, it's taken from her by her uncle, the moody Sir Benjamin (Ian Gruffudd), who unsuccessfully attempts to keep her on a short leash, no thanks to her nervous governess Miss Heliotrope (an amusing Juliet Stevenson).

With a little help from the lovely but enigmatic Loveday (Natascha McElhone) and an impish chef (Andy Linden), Maria gets to the bottom of a longstanding feud between her family and the dark De Noir clan (headed by Tim Curry's glowering patriarch) over a missing pair of powerful pearls.

Csupo again displays a nice touch with the lavish but well-placed visuals, never allowing the movie to go into special effects overload, while cinematographer David Eggby ("Mad Max"), production designer Sophie Becher and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor effectively layer on that requisite fairy tale luster.

But the screenplay adaptation by Lucy Shuttleworth and Graham Alborough never successfully raises the story off of its own well-worn page to give it a special, invigorated life of its own. As a result "Moonacre," feeling as familiarly generic as its title, is content to conjure up ordinary magic.

Production: Velvet Octopus, U.K. Film Council, Forgan-Smith Entertainment, Spice Factory, LWH Films, Eurofilm Studio, Davis Films.
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Tim Curry, Nastascha McElhone, Juliet Stevenson, Dakota Blue Richards.
Director: Gabor Csupo.
Screenwriters: Lucy Shuttleworth, Graham Alborough.
Executive producers: David Brown, Simon Crowe, Simon Fawcett, Victor Hadida, Matthew Joynes, Alex Marshall, Jennifer Smith, Kaspar Strandskov.
Producers: Jason Piette, Michael L. Cowan, Samuel Hadida, Monica Penders, Meredith Garlick.
Director of photography: David Eggby.
Production designer: Sophie Becher.
Music: Christian Henson.
Costume designer: Beatrix Aruna Pasztor.
Editor: Julian Rodd.
Sales agent: Endeavor Independent/Velvet Octopus Film Sales.
No rating, 103 minutes.


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