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The Secret of Moonacre 

A tepid fantasy-adventure weighed down with annoying swaths of leaden whimsy.

With:
Sir Benjamin Merryweather/Sir Wrolf Merryweather - Ioan Gruffudd Coeur de Noir/Sir William de Noir - Tim Curry Loveday/Moon Princess - Natascha McElhone Miss Heliotrope - Juliet Stevenson Maria Merryweather - Dakota Blue Richards Robin De Noir - Augustus Prew Digweed - Michael Webber Marmaduke Scarlet - Andy Linden

Even the most industrious marketing wizards will be hard-pressed to conjure up B.O. magic for “The Secret of Moonacre,” a tepid fantasy-adventure weighed down with annoying swaths of leaden whimsy. Adapted from “The Little White Horse,” Elizabeth Goudge’s enduring 1946 children’s novel, this bland Euro-pudding might have slight appeal for young girls who can identify with the plucky 13-year-old heroine played by Dakota Blue Richards (“The Golden Compass”). But there’s not much here for adolescent boys, and nothing at all for older auds already bored with this sort of hocus pocus. Any potential profit must be mined in homevid.

Left penniless after the death of her improvident father, proper young Maria Merryweather (Richards) must leave her London home and journey — accompanied by her faithful caretaker Miss Heliotrope (Juliet Stevenson) — to the remote country estate of Moonacre Manor. In the stately yet slightly gone-to-seed mansion, Maria is the not-entirely-welcome guest of her uncle, Sir Benjamin Merryweather (Ioan Gruffudd), a sternly sarcastic fellow who warns his niece never to venture into the surrounding woods. It is a warning, of course, she almost immediately disregards.

With a little help from a magical storybook left by her father, Maria comes to realize the denizens of the forest — specifically, a surly clan led by the snarling Coeur de Noir (Tim Curry) — have been feuding with the Merryweather family for centuries, the result of a curse pronounced on Moonacre Valley by a beautiful and powerful Moon Princess (Natascha McElhone).

The magical book describes a backstory involving a unicorn, an enchanted necklace, a greed-fueled dispute between the Moon Princess’ father (Curry again) and her fiance (Gruffudd again), a rudely interrupted wedding ceremony and a black lion that makes a less-than-convincing transformation into a very large dog. (CGI effects are uneven throughout.)

Working from an adapted screenplay by Lucy Shuttleworth and Graham Alborough, helmer Gabor Csupo (“Bridge to Terabithia”) doesn’t make all the plot points easily understandable. (Some young viewers, and perhaps more than a few older ones, may not immediately grasp that Gruffudd, Curry and McElhone are playing dual roles.) Nor does he appear to feel any great need to accelerate narrative momentum to sustain interest.

The stately melodrama is often interrupted by strained silliness (Stevenson periodically belches, quite loudly, for comic effect), and the mid-1880s flavor is undermined by the occasional anachronism. (As Coeur de Noir’s unpleasant but not irredeemable son, Augustus Prew is outfitted in a manner that suggests the sartorial influence of “A Clockwork Orange.”) Many of Richards’ older co-stars are given to fits of mugging and overplaying, but the young thesp is at the very least consistent, if not conspicuously charming.

Filmed mostly on Hungarian locations, pic boasts production values that are a notch or two below dazzling.

The Secret of Moonacre 

U.K.-Australia

Production: A Warner Bros. Intl. (in U.K.) release of a Forgan-Smith Entertainment (Australia)/Spice Factory (U.K.) production, in association with LWH Films, Eurofilm Studio, Davis Films, Grand Allure Entertainment, Aramid Entertainment. (International sales: Velvet Octopus, London.) Produced by Jason Piette, Michael L. Cowan, Samuel Hadida, Monica Penders, Meredith Garlick. Executive producers, David Brown, Simon Crowe, Simon Fawcett, Victor Hadida, Matthew Joynes, Alex Marshall, Jennifer Smith, Kaspar Strandshov. Co-producers, Gabor Varadi, Peter Miskolczi. Directed by Gabor Csupo. Screenplay, Lucy Shuttleworth, Graham Alborough, based on the novel "The Little White Horse" by Elizabeth Goudge.

Crew: Camera (color), David Eggby; editor, Julian Rodd; music, Christian Henson; production designer, Sophie Becher; costume designer, Beatrix Aruna Pasztor; sound (Dolby Digital), Rupert Ivey; associate producers, Lucy Shuttleworth, Jim Davey; assistant director, Charlie Watson. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Sprockets Family Zone), Sept. 6, 2008. Running time: 103 MIN.

With: Sir Benjamin Merryweather/Sir Wrolf Merryweather - Ioan Gruffudd Coeur de Noir/Sir William de Noir - Tim Curry Loveday/Moon Princess - Natascha McElhone Miss Heliotrope - Juliet Stevenson Maria Merryweather - Dakota Blue Richards Robin De Noir - Augustus Prew Digweed - Michael Webber Marmaduke Scarlet - Andy Linden

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