Let me say this right up front: I loved Nancy Drew books when I was a kid, and I have a 10-year-old daughter who loves them just as much now as I did years ago. So ever since it was first announced a Nancy Drew movie was being made, and that it was going to star Emma Roberts (Aquamarine), my daughter and I have been eagerly anticipating the film's release date. I hoped "they" wouldn't mess it up -- it feels sometimes like there's this office full of mysterious "them" out there in Hollywood somewhere, who are paid large salaries to do little more than sit around drumming up ways to screw up potentially good films. Fortunately for the tween set, at whom Nancy Drew is primarily targeted, "they" were apparently otherwise engaged while this film was being developed, because it's pretty darn good.

I'd wondered how the filmmakers would handle bringing Nancy Drew into 2007 --after all, this is the teen detective who sleuths while wearing neatly-pressed dresses and polished penny loafers, and whose sometime-boyfriend, the wholesome and sporty Ned Nickerson, wishes his gal would rather bake pies than solve mysteries. Nancy's transition to the 21st century was actually handled rather deftly: the film is set in today, but Nancy, whose mother died when she was a baby, lives in the past. She makes her own nifty-looking clothes from her mother's old dress patterns (look for Nancy's nifty retro look to be a new fashion trend with the tween and teen set if this film really hits big), drives a sporty, powder-blue vintage roadster, and keeps her sleuthing stuff organized in a handy kit complete with a silver tin for carrying around homemade lemon bars and blondies (all the better for bribing bureaucrats when you need to get at confidential information).

The film kicks off with the indefatigable Miss Drew not only solving yet another crime ahead of the River Heights police department, but negotiating with the criminals to boot. Nancy is a hometown heroine -- everyone knows who she is, and everyone likes her. But things are about to change for Nancy; she's moving with her father temporarily to Los Angeles, and the small-town girl detective knows nothing about fitting in with your average pack of teens at an LA high school. As if all that normal teenage angst isn't enough for a girl to deal with, Nancy has another conundrum: she's promised her father she won't sleuth in Los Angeles, that she'll try to be a regular girl -- but the house she's found for them to rent has a juicy mystery surrounding the death of the famous actress who used to live there.

It doesn't take being a detective to figure out that Nancy won't be able to stop solving mysteries -- or that she'll get herself into a whole mess of trouble. Nancy's usual partners in crime-solving, Bess and George, get minimal screen time here; instead, Nancy pals up with a chubby, misfit 12-year-old named Corky who fancies himself a ladies' man. In addition to solving a 20-year-old mystery, Nancy has high school cliques to conquer, and her feelings for Ned to consider -- further complicated when Ned shows up for a visit, much to Corky's chagrin.

As for the plot of the mystery itself, well, the Nancy Drew series was never concerned much with realistic plots. The basic formula is to put a mystery in front of the teen detective, put her in a little peril (but never too much -- Nancy never gets seriously hurt, for all the times she's been kidnapped by thugs and locked in trunks and basements and hidden passageways), and then have her resourcefully solve the mystery and get herself out of trouble. That's pretty much the formula director Andrew Fleming and co-writer Tiffany Paulsen stick with, and it works here (at least for the film's target audience) largely because of Roberts' winning charm.

Roberts gets some supporting help from Josh Flitter as Corky, who glues himself to Nancy and is more of a hindrance than a useful sidekick, and Max Theiriot as the noble Ned, who adores Nancy, but worries about her safety. There's the ubiquitous scary caretaker, Leshing (Marshall Bell), who may or may not know more than he reveals, lots of spooky hidden passages and tunnels and clues to a missing will, and a girl in trouble who may be the secret daughter of the long-dead movie star, the beautiful and haunting Dehliah Draycott. As in a lot of the Nancy Drew stories, it's pretty obvious who the bad guy is, but it's still a fun ride watching Nancy navigate both a mysterious death and the mysteries of high school cliques with spunk and aplomb, while always keeping her hair perfectly in place and her practical penny loafers remarkably unscuffed.

It's hard to imagine a better casting choice for the role of the spunky girl detective than Roberts, who's transitioned nicely from her television role on Unfabulous to handling lead roles in teen flicks. She did a nice enough job in last year's Aquamarine, but in Nancy Drew she's really found a role that fits her perfectly. Her next role (according to IMDb, at least) is a film called Wild Child, where she'll play a rebellious rich girl shipped off to a strict Brit boarding school, but judging from the reaction of my own daughter and the rest of the young girls at the packed screening we attended, more Nancy Drew (a television series? more movies?) would be well-received. It's refreshing, as well, to have a teenage heroine who's nice, modest, smart and polite instead of half-dressed and obnoxiously mouthy; I'm betting I'm not the only parent who wouldn't mind her daughter seeing more of Nancy Drew in the future.
categories Reviews, Cinematical