In "The Secret Garden," based on the turn-of-the-century novel of the same name, the neglected and orphaned Mary Lennox arrives at the Yorkshire castle of her uncle, discovers an equally untended garden and cousin and brings them both back to life. (Rated G)
You picture a G-rated, turn-of-the-century period film, based on a book already labeled--oh, please--a "classic." You add streetwise, MTV kids of the '90s. I expected yawns.
But instead of restlessness, this film produced a rapt audience of toddlers to preteens, both boys and girls, who gave it a surprising, unqualified thumbs up.
"I thought it was great," said Sarah Bradshaw, 9, who said she preferred this version to a BBC-produced video she had seen previously. "This one had a lot more action to it."
Many viewers were very young, some carrying dolls, stuffed animals or blankies for comfort in the dark. But even the youngest watched, alert and still, throughout the film as it progressed steadily from mystery to mystery, from secret to secret, from one raw childhood emotion to another: the hurt that is too deep for tears, the anger that bursts unbridled into tantrums, the joy of friendships, the ecstacy of putting a controlling adult in her place.
Mary, who evolved from brat to heroine, captivated the children the most. "The thing I remember most is her face when she was angry," said Stephanie Fitch, 10. "It was weird. She crumbled up her shoulders and everything."
No matter if they missed the movie's larger metaphors, the children easily grasped its obvious awe of nature. They were more appreciative of the unfolding flowers and rooting bulbs than the misty panoramas of the Yorkshire countryside.
Matthew Appleton, 9, said, "I liked the garden. It was pretty. I wish I could live there."
Don't we all. . . .
It hardly seems possible, but some young viewers were unfamiliar with the book, the play, the musical and the previous English and American TV versions.
Matthew and his sister Rachelle, 12, who both loved the movie, said they had never heard of "The Secret Garden" and chose the film only as a mother-encouraged alternative to "Jason Goes to Hell."
Others said they already knew about the book. Many had started it, but few had actually finished more than the first chapter, a typical fate of "classics" that adults give to children as presents, thinking they ought to read and like.
Cami McTigue, 11, said she asked her baby-sitter to read it to her "because I couldn't read the old English." Stephanie gave up after the first long chapter about Mary's childhood in India. But both said the movie inspired them to give the book another try.
Even those too young to read found the movie unusually appealing.
Three-year-old Adam Swan always falls asleep in movies, and this was the first one in which he was able to stay up for the end, said his mother, Tracey.
Exiting the theater, he rubbed an eye with one hand and reached for his mother's with the other. "We had a special time, didn't we?" he asked.