It’s a hard-knock life for the urchins of Hardwick House Orphanage — and no spring picnic for the rest of us, either — in “Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism,” a chintzy children’s fantasy that summons the powers of suggestion, but falls well short of mesmeric. From the Potter-ized tweaking of the title — which replaces the possessive of Georgia Byng’s 2002 source novel, “Molly Moon’s Incredible Book of Hypnotism,” with a conjunction more suitable to J.K. Rowling acolytes — the film attempts to bestow Chosen One status on another British misfit with special powers. But the stakes are as low as the production values in co-writer/director Christopher N. Rowley’s adaptation, which opens simultaneously in limited release and VOD on Aug. 14, but seems destined for home viewing on only the rainiest of afternoons.
Bearing the slogan “Chin Up. Work Hard. Be Useful.,” Hardwick House is one of those dilapidated countryside manors that sit behind cast-iron gates and are introduced with an ominous thunderclap. The director of the orphanage, Miss Adderstone (Mike Leigh favorite Lesley Manville), forbids singing, sweets and TV, and torments her errant charges by making them eat fish soup for a week. (The lucky ones get a hunk of mackerel.) With barely a dim hope for adoption, young Molly Moon (the gifted Raffey Cassidy, last seen in “Tomorrowland”) clings to her best friend, Rocky (Jadon Carnelly-Morris), and retreats to the library to nurture a secret love of books. It’s there that she discovers “Hypnotism: An Ancient Art Explained,” a rare text that teaches gifted readers like herself to manipulate pets, people, and even crowds to her advantage.
When a series of unfortunate events finds Rocky whisked off to London with a new set of adoptive parents, Molly and her mischievous dog, a black pug named Petula, dash off to the big city to find him and bring him back in time for Christmas. Once there, Molly’s newfound powers of persuasion gain her a suite at a fancy hotel and a fashion upgrade for both she and the pup. She also seizes the opportunity to become famous by replacing Davina (Tallulah Evans), a spoiled child star, in a musical extravaganza, despite the fact that she can’t sing a lick. Meanwhile, a dastardly crook named Nockman (Dominic Monaghan, of “Lost” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) bungles into the picture, seeking possession of the book as part of a hare-brained robbery scheme.
“Molly Moon” taps into the potent fantasy of a powerless girl finally wresting some control over the world around her, but Molly’s entire odyssey in London feels like a sidetrack that inadvertently became the main track. Her quest for fame and material possession gives the pic a moral arc, but it takes away from the reality of her life at Hardwick House, which is grounded in the more basic fears of abandonment and lost friendship. Hypnosis gives her a chance to transform her day-to-day miseries into wonders, but instead the second act plops her in London and makes the story about her transformation into an entitled brat. The lesson for kids appears to be: If you must use magic, please do so responsibly.
All Harry Potter comparisons aside, “Molly Moon” harks back to more hidebound traditions in family entertainment. It does nothing to rethink the cliches of fictional orphanages with wicked headmistresses, thin gruel and ragamuffins clothed in filthy, ill-fitting hand-me-downs. And poor Monaghan is left to clown around like the slapstick villains in an old Disney live-action comedy, the types who wind up waist-deep in raw sewage or take swift kicks to the shins. As the one kind caregiver in the orphanage, Emily Watson takes an early exit from these generic kid-pic shenanigans: She gets high billing, but barely sticks around long enough to get knocked down a flight of stairs.
Tech package is largely uninspired, with the modest budget sticking out especially in London, which even veterans like d.p. Remi Adefarasin (“Match Point”) and production designer John Beard (“The Wings of the Dove”) can’t adorn with the requisite fairydust. Special demerits to the original songs by Peter Raeburn and Nick Foster, which are hard on the ears even before the tuneless Molly sings them on a national stage.