Harriet the Spy

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Bronwen Hughes

REVIEWED: 07-17-96

Image Harriet the Spy is based on the popular kid's book of the same name by Louise Fitzhugh. I can't say I've ever read the book. At the proper age, I believe I was embroiled in the adventures of one Encyclopedia Brown. Harriet The Spy is, however, the first theatrical film from Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon, for those of you without kids or cable, is the wildly popular children's cable network that has birthed such pop culture gems as "Ren and Stimpy." Of the ten most popular shows on basic cable, fully half can be found on Nickelodeon. With some of their shows rated higher than network TV programs, the facts bear out only one conclusion: It ain't just kids watching Nickelodeon. And why should it be? With such hip adolescent offerings as "Rugrats," "Rocko's Modern Life" and "AAAHH!!! Real Monsters," Nickelodeon is fun for all ages. Hell, I watch Nickelodeon. So why not branch out and do feature-length films? ... Well, it seemed like a good idea anyway.

Harriet the Spy stars Michelle Trachtenberg (of Nickelodeon's "The Adventures of Pete and Pete") as a pre-teen busybody who spends her days spying on her friends and neighbors and writing down every smidgeon of information in her sacred private notebook. Rosie O'Donnell joins the party as Golly--Harriet's nanny, protector and all-around sage advisor. Trachtenberg is wonderful. She was a highlight of the already highly cool "Pete and Pete," and she only continues to build on her talents here. Trachtenberg has the kind of sixth-grade savoir faire that makes me wish I had a little sister. O'Donnell, on the other hand, is strangely stiff and self-conscious as the far too venerable Golly. O'Donnell reads every line as if she's quoting Aesop.

First-time director Bronwen Hughes gives Harriet plenty of visual energy. Nickelodeon has always had a jazzy MTV style with its shows. Quirky angles and perky music video editing work well here, giving Harriet a unique visual style that most will find entertaining. Harriet's biggest burden, however, is overcoming a rather directionless script. It takes nearly half the movie for Harriet The Spy to grow any semblence of a plot. Harriet spends most of the movie simply observing her neighbors. There's the Chinese family who owns the corner grocery, there's the man who builds birdcages and collects cats, and for some reason there's Eartha Kitt doing what looks like an imitation of Swoosie Kurtz's role in True Stories. Problem is none of these people have anything to do with anything. Eventually Harriet loses her spy journal, her friends get ahold of it, read it and decide to shun her for all the "truths" she has written down. That's kind of it. For all the moralizing that Rosie O'Donnell gets to do, I'm not really sure what the moral is here.

Nickelodeon was the first network to treat kids as intelligent, hip and genuinely witty individuals. Their first attempt at a theatrical film tries its best to emulate those features. Something got lost along the way, however. Guess we'll just have to wait until David Lynch agrees to direct The Adventures of Pete and Pete: The Movie.

--Devin D. O'Leary

Capsule Reviews
Harriet the Spy

Other Films by Bronwen Hughes
Forces of Nature

Film Vault Suggested Links
The Santa Clause
Operation Dumbo Drop
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland

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