“Once upon a perfect time many hundreds of years ago, when the old magic clung to the Moonacre Valley, there was a young woman whose skin gleamed as pale as a star and whose heart was as pure as moonlight. Such was her bravery and goodness, she was beloved by nature as if she were its own daughter.”
Director Gabor Csupo is no stranger to the world of fantasy. While The Secret Of Moonacre was only his third film, his last film was the very similar Bridge To Terabithia. That film had a rather extraordinary cast, and while some of the film festival crowd found themselves endeared to the fanciful film, it was not the box office smash that these films often bring these days. But there was always the chance that he would have learned significantly from the earlier film and was ready to bring that experience to this storybook tale. After watching this movie and his interviews on the disc, I’m sorry to report that he hasn’t learned a thing, mostly because he thinks he’s already got it down. And that’s the fatal flaw of Secret Of Moonacre.
“One faithful night, the moon blessed her with an extraordinary gift that would change the magic of the valley forever. The Moon Pearls. From that day forth she was known as the Moon Princess.”
It’s very hard to do this kind of movie on a limited budget. Audiences have become entirely too jaded by the incredible effects and cinematography that the big-budget fantasy franchise films have delivered over the years. And while those films continually try to outdo themselves in entry upon entry of their own film series, it’s nearly impossible to keep up when you’re relying on lottery grants and the like to build your own fantasy film. The result is a collection of mediocre actors and computer-generated images that are so obvious that there is no magic for the viewer that can carry him off to your imaginary land so that they can play your game.
The film is based upon a novel by Elizabeth Goudge called The Little White Horse. The DVD box art includes a quote from Harry Potter creator Rowling describing her love for the source material. I’d love to hear what the lady thinks of the subsequent film. It’s a convoluted fairy tale that is entirely too predictable from the moment it begins. Like most people, I love being carried away to some other time and place. I’m just a little picky about the mode of transportation.
“Two ancient families lived in harmony at the edge of the valley, sharing nature’s bounty. Daughter of the De Noir clan, the Moon Princess, fell deeply in love and was to be married to Sir Wrolf Merryweather. Her father, Sir William De Noir, blessed the union by presenting the couple with a rare black lion. In time, Sir Wrolf gave his bride a unicorn lured from the wild white horses of the sea. Her heart overflowing with happiness, the Moon Princess revealed the magical pearls to both families. Legend told of the unique power, so strong the pearls would grant every wish … both good and evil.”
Maria (Richards) has just lost her father. He was her last surviving parent. She had been used to living in comfort in the city. But father was deeply in debt and has nothing to leave to his only daughter but an old storybook. The exotic leather-bound book describes the magical events of a Moon Princess and her two families in a magical place called Moonacre. By a remarkable coincidence, she is now being sent along with her tutor Miss Heliotrope (Stevenson) to live with her Uncle Benjamin (Gruffudd) in a place called Moonacre. The estate is in a wretched state of decay. It’s literally falling down around him. Uncle Ben doesn’t really like his life disturbed, and while he really loves his niece and feels responsible for her, he’s irritated by her presence.
Left pretty much to her own, Maria explores the estate and the forbidden woods outside of the gates. There she discovers a gang of bandits called De Noirs, just like in the storybook, which her uncle has mysteriously confiscated from her. The family wants her eliminated. Maria soon discovers that the book is true and that she is living among the characters and events of the story. Since the two families split over the pearls, the Moon Princess has put a curse on the families and the land. It will destroy them completely if a woman who is pure of heart does not recover the pearls and return them to the sea before the 5,000th moon. Have you guessed? Said moon happens to be now. Maria is plunged into the story having to become the new Moon Princess to save Moonacre from being plunged into darkness and decay forever.
There are some interesting characters here. Tim Curry plays the De Noir father and does everything but actually twirl his mustache for the camera. He wears an S&M-style leather hood and basically waddles about looking to kill Maria. Ioan Gruffudd has come a long way down from Reed Richards here as the Merryweather clan patriarch. He never appears to have a clue what he’s doing and seems completely out of place in this fairytale. Natascha McElhone can’t do much more than walk about pouting or trying to look pretty. The band of De Noirs look like they’re an escaped punk rock band in their garb and talk. The comedy relief is provided by Andy Linden as Marmaduke, the eccentric and magical cook, and Michael Webber as Digweed, the Merryweather butler. These two characters are the only compelling members of the cast. They’re engaging and offer some respite from some of the stiffest acting I’ve ever seen. It’s here that I think Csupo has failed miserably once again. I mean, this is the guy who made Robert De Niro look like crap. I’d love to tell you there are some redeeming characteristics of this movie. I’d have to lie, badly.
The Secret Of Moonacre is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. For a fairy tale this film is shot quite dark. That’s a serious problem when you release the movie with such a low bit rate on DVD. There is awful compression artifact here. Black levels are simply horrible, and the image is so compressed that it shimmers and shifts to the point of detraction. From time to time colors do break out of the mud. Dark reds tend to look rather deep and nice. An occasional dress will provide a rare respite from the dreariness of it all. When light does return to the Valley, it is the most awful yellow affair that makes me pine for the return of the dark. It’s a bad image presentation of a bad film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does provide some ambient effects, but surprisingly little. The most impressive use of surrounds occurs at the very end of the film where a roaring seashore behind us puts us into the experience for the first time. But this is the end of the movie. Even some of the dialog doesn’t quite make it through the rather muddy audio presentation.
Behind The Scenes Featurette: (19:28) This is just raw behind-the-scenes footage with no narration or interview clips.
Dakota Blue Richards (6:04)
Ioan Gruffudd (5:02)
Natascha McElhone (7:15)
Tim Curry (4:58)
Augustus Prew (5:02)
Juliet Stevenson (4:13)
Making Of Featurette: (23:31) Cast and crew talk about their first experiences with the source material and go on to discuss the story and characters.
Deleted Scenes: (11:20) There is no way to access the scenes individually. There are reference numbers framing the scenes throughout.
I think I’m going to have to give up on Csupo. Watching him talk, he believes he’s made the perfect film. He won’t get better if he already feels like he’s achieved perfection. It’s no mystery that he loves to direct fantasy films. He’s living in quite a fantasy world himself. “I’m starting to understand one thing. The real curse of this valley is pride.”