Harriet The Spy

on July 12, 1996 by Christine James
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   Based on Louise Fitzhugh's enduringly popular 1964 novel about the adventures of a precocious girl writer whose investigations often get her into trouble, this film adaptation doesn't live up to its promise as a movie that could have had a lot of fun exploiting the ingenuity-themed construct. Michelle Trachtenberg of cable TV's "The Adventures of Pete and Pete" stars as Harriet, an 11-year-old aspiring author who obsessively keeps a notebook of everything she observes. Believing that inscribing the cover of her journal with the word "PRIVATE" in big block capitals will actually keep people from reading it, Harriet pulls no punches with her perceptions, stating them with an objective honesty that could be misconstrued as cruel if taken out of context. With that time bomb ticking away, Harriet sets herself up for even more trouble by habitually spying on people, sneaking in where she doesn't belong and jotting down her impressions of all she sees. Harriet stands to lose the most when her best friends, Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester) and Sport (Gregory Smith), discover what she's written about them. When her entire classroom turns against her, Harriet must come to terms with the consequences of her chosen profession.
   Trachtenberg is likable and genuine as Harriet, possessing canny, perceptive delivery and articulate facial expressions. But the friendship among Harriet, Janie and Sport has the feeling of a very forced dynamic, undermining the heart of the story. Also ringing untrue is Rosie O'Donnell as Harriet's nanny and mentor, Golly, whose supposed wisdom and free-thinking nature is conveyed by her tendency to speak in trite maxims. Multitudinous opportunities for creativity are completely missed. Harriet's makeshift spy belt is barely utilized, and her revenge sequence could have been far more inventive. One element the film does do well is convey the frighteningly effective capacity of schoolchildren to ostracize and torture one another, while it provides a reassuring message that even humongous-seeming problems can be rectified if you make an effort. But, overall, the filmmakers behind "Harriet the Spy" should have done some detective work themselves and tracked down some imaginative writers to expand upon the potential of Fitzhugh's characters and story. Starring Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O'Donnell, Gregory Smith and Vanessa Lee Chester. Directed by Brownwen Hughes. Written by Douglas Petrie and Theresa Rebeck. Produced by MaryKay Powell. A Paramount release. Adventure. Rated PG for mild language and some thematic elements. Running time: 97 min
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