Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Movie Review: Harriet The Spy

After reviewing The Parent Trap, I realized that it's movie I like not because I like it but because I was forced to like it. For a period in life I couldn't turn my head without seeing that movie. Now I want to talk about some kid's movies I actually like for themselves. Starting with Harriet The Spy.

The Kid's Lit Cannon

Before I get started there are some things you have understand about Harriet The Spy. The first is that this movie is based on a book from what I call the kid's lit cannon. I don't know if it is the same way now, but when I was growing up in an effort to get kids to read a lot of anthologies were put together. In retrospect that's just a kid's reading primer, but anyway.  A lot of these anthologies would have the same stories. Encyclopedia Brown The Hardy Boys, Number of the Stars, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Pippi Longstoking, Maniac McGee, Matilda, Shiloh, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, How to Eat Fried Worms, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Jungle Books, Charlotte's Web, Alexander's No Good Terrible Very Bad Day, The Cat in the Hat, Freaky Friday, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Little Engine That Could, Where the Wild Things Are, Corduroy, The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Holes, Indian in the Cupboard, Ramona Quimby, The Giver, Mrs. Frisby and the Rat's of Nimh, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, James and the Giant Peach,  (Guess who my favorite author growing up was).

Oddly enough a good chunk of those are from the '60s and '70s. Go figure. 

My point is that these and others like them form what I call the children's literary cannon. You think people complain when a 25-year old cartoon series they practically forgot about is made into a movie, wait until a book they were planning to read to their grand-kids gets it up the pooper. You think people were shouting, "You raped my childhood!" with Transformers, you have no idea. There is a reason why the phrase, "much beloved children's classic" exists. That said when they get it right you have a cultural touchstone, that may even outlast the book.

You have to understand that when I was kid I loved Nickelodeon and this was their first theatrical film. This movie came out and more or less cemented Nick as the folks who understood kids. And let me get my old man on here, they've gone downhill. (Wait this is the network that gave me Korra and Ned's Declassified. You might want to shut it.)

Nostalgic Surrealism ( The Pete and Pete Effect)
I always found the best kids' movies always had an element of  surrealism. The thing about writing movie heck anything with kids, especially one for kids, is that objective truth isn't as important as subjective truth. Recreating in the audience the feeling of childhood is more important than recreating childhood itself.

Take The Wonder Years. As a contemporary audience watching that show we know a lot more about what's going on in Kevin's life than he does. We know about the Vietnam War and the social trends of the '60s. But Kevin doesn't.  And the show does a good job of showing his reletive powerlessness as a kid in the '60s not knowing what the hell is going on.

In the '90s though filmic surrealism reached new heights in Nick shows like Pete and Pete, which coincidentally the star of Harriet The Spy played in. A lot of kids shows and movies from the '90s  run on that surrealism this one included.  Everything exists but at the same time doesn't because it's not reality, it's reality seen through the eyes of an 11-year old. And you know what. That is what Nick in the old days ran on.

The Spy
In The Parent Trap, the first act focused on setting up the plot. Since in this story the plot is going to come from conflicts between the characters this movie's first  act and a good chunk of it's second focuses on the characters, making it very episodic.  Again the story is all about Harriet's perception so it's very clear, that the audience knows only what Harriet knows.  It's all about establishing her personality as rambunctious. She's loud, rude, energetic and... bouncy. Because the movie is about Harriet's view it has to be subtle.  Harriet is smart. Maybe too smart for her own good. She picks up on stuff. Her friend Sport has very little money, she sees him in a spot at a grocery store and gives him money without her letting on. Anyway the reason why it's called Harriet the Spy is that the girl is curious. And well she spies... a lot. It's kind of her thing.  Stick a pin in that. I'll come back to it.

The second act is where conflicts start to arise. Harriet's nanny who has become her second mother decides to move on. And Trachtenberg, Harriet's actor does a brilliant job of showing how shocked and hurt this girl is. This kid who for the first half hour of the movie never stopped moving is quiet and still.

Alright by the middle of the second act the plot finally arrives.  Harriet writes all her thoughts down and some of them aren't exactly flattering. Even of her friends she's kind of mean . She loses her notebook, and everybody reads it, causing a schism between her and her friends, heck her entire class. Again the acting is great. The kids play really well how hurt they are.  The movie took it's time showing how close their clique was and when they break up and Harriet is isolated it feels like a real shame.  Again the magic is how Harriet shows it. When she is happy or even neutral she bounces around like a lima bean. When she's sad her nearly spastic movement become solemn. And ultimately that's what the movie is about, the emotional trails and tribulations of this really bright energetic kid as her life crashes around her.  At the nadir of the movie it seems this kid has lost most of what she cares about and the adults in her life who are suppose to protect her are oblivious, as she panics and acts out because of it.

Then there is the family unfriendly aesop, that sometimes to maintain social stability, you need to lie.  The truth will not always set you free. In fact sometimes the truth hurts and telling the truth hurts. As Guru Kid from Recess once said as he retracted his previous advice of "set the bird free" in regards to the truth, "Not that kind of bird! Lock it in a cage! Throw away the key! We shall not speak of this again!"

Also is the family unfriendly aesop that when something's broken it can't easily be fixed. While Harriet eventually does hook back up with her friends it's a long road. When she first apologizes for a ... bunch of stuff they blow her off. "You can't be my friend if you're not my friend." In the end,  "The truth is important, but so are you're friends and if you can have them both, it's a good life." 

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