An uneasy mixture of social essay and period kiddy-cute, "Fairy Tale: A True Story" is as light --- and centerless --- as a marshmallow. Based on the true-life event known as the Cottingley Fairies, in which two young English girls claimed to have photographed sprites in 1917, pic tries to appeal to both adult auds and children but is more likely to prove too insubstantial for the former and often plain confusing for the latter.

An uneasy mixture of social essay and period kiddy-cute, “Fairy Tale: A True Story” is as light — and centerless — as a marshmallow. Based on the true-life event known as the Cottingley Fairies, in which two young English girls claimed to have photographed sprites in 1917, pic tries to appeal to both adult auds and children but is more likely to prove too insubstantial for the former and often plain confusing for the latter. Though there’s charm aplenty on display here, this Oct. 24 Paramount release should have a longer afterlife on homevideo than in theaters.

Basic material is identical to the British film “Photographing Fairies,” helmed by Nick Willing from the Steve Szilagyi novel, which recently preemed at the Edinburgh festival and goes out in the U.K. this month. Though flawed by script and performance problems, “Photographing Fairies” is in many ways a more impressive construct, directly targeting an adult audience with its dramatic envelope of a grand romantic passion, and at least getting halfway to first base in its theme of post-WWI loss of faith and the need to believe. And with its central character a professional photog, the twin poles of scientific inquiry and unscientific spiritualism are held more securely in focus.

“Fairy Tale” takes more than a while to show its hand, with the opening reels confusingly structured and likely to put off younger auds. Pic crosscuts between London, where illusionist Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) is the toast of the capital and good friend of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole), and the small Yorkshire town of Cottingley, where the Wright family lives.

The father, Arthur Wright (Paul McGann), is a down-to-earth engineer who has just designed the electrification of Cottingley spinning mill. His wife, Polly (Phoebe Nicholls), is a devoted mom, still marked by the loss of their young son. Also in their rural abode is 12-year-old daughter Elsie (Florence Hoath), and her 10-year-old cousin, Frances (Elizabeth Earl), a war orphan from Africa, where her father is presumed missing or dead.

One day, in a nearby copse, the girls spot some flying fairies. Though Elsie’s mom says there’s no such thing, some drawings left behind by Elsie’s dead brother convince the kids they’re right. Pics they take galvanize interest from both the press and London literary figures including Conan Doyle, who’s becoming more and more engrossed in spiritualism, to the interested amusement of his friend Houdini.

Movie’s chief problem is in getting a handle on its main focus, given the various ideas flitting around in the script. O’Toole’s linguistically rotund Conan Doyle and Keitel’s more streetwise showman Houdini make an odd couple, and seem to be running a debating sideshow, far removed from the tale of childhood wonderment taking place up in rural Yorkshire. And though, like “Photographing Fairies,” the pic touches on the rise of spiritual cranksterism in war-shocked Britain, that too is never deeply woven into the separate story far north.

What’s left is a movie that yo-yos between various points and finally decides to go for the family/kid angle, with an f/x tour de force at the end in which the fairies — expressing simple childhood joy and optimism — bind together the Wright family in an aerial ballet throughout their home. Zbigniew Preisner’s string-oriented score, till then largely built on pregnant motifs, delivers the goods for a warm, magical finale.

As the two girls, Hoath and Earl are neatly contrasted, with the latter making a sparkier companion to the former’s more wistful, baby-faced Elsie. McGann has a smallish role as the father, and Nicholls (actress wife of pic’s director, Charles Sturridge) is effective enough without making much impression. Mel Gibson, repping Icon Prods.’ involvement, makes a lightning cameo at the very end as Frances’ returning father.

Production values are tasty, with Sturridge marshaling a strong team of past collaborators (several from NBC’s “Gulliver’s Travels”) and period specialists. Shirley Russell’s costume design is typically detailed, and production design by Michael Howells seamlessly incorporates work at the U.K.’s Shepperton Studios with locations in London and Yorkshire. Flying sequences involving the fairies by visual f/x supervisor Tim Webber are ultra-smooth, though the gadfly-like creatures are a less startling creation than the sexy, R-rated ones in “Photographing Fairies.”

Fairy Tale: A True Story

Production

A Paramount release of an Icon Prods./Wendy Finerman Prods. production. Produced by Wendy Finerman, Bruce Davey. Executive producer, Paul Tucker. Co-producers, Selwyn Roberts, Albert Ash, Tom McLoughlin. Directed by Charles Sturridge. Screenplay, Ernie Contreras; story, Albert Ash, Tom McLoughlin, Contreras.

Crew

Camera (Metrocolor/Deluxe prints), Michael Coulter; editor, Peter Coulson; music, Zbigniew Preisner; production design, Michael Howells; costume design, Shirley Russell; sound (Dolby), John Midgley; visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber; associate producer, Margaret French Isaac; assistant director, Micky Finch; second unit director, Selwyn Roberts; casting, Mary Selway, Trevor Hoath. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 11, 1997. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Elsie Wright - Florence Hoath
Frances Griffiths - Elizabeth Earl
Arthur Wright - Paul McGann
Polly Wright - Phoebe Nicholls
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Peter O'Toole
Harry Houdini - Harvey Keitel
E.L. Gardner - Bill Nighy
Harry Briggs - Bob Peck
John Ferret - Tim McInnerny
Frances' Father - Mel Gibson

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