Since first emerging as a children's book series in the 1930s, the Nancy Drew name has sold millions of books, launched several classic-Hollywood movie adaptations, and a couple of television series. But the brand doesn't seem to have much currency with current kids — or is my own daughter too young for me to realize that it does? Thus the challenge facing this attempt at forging a new kid-movie film franchise.
The notion of updating the Nancy Drew formula — a teen sleuth living with her solo-parent father — to contemporary life has been done, and well, with TV's short-lived Veronica Mars. Less hip, less grown-up, and less realistic, Nancy Drew bypasses the Mars model and takes a different route: Aimed at more of a pre-teen audience, it wants to be The Goonies for girls when it should be aiming for the storytelling integrity of the Harry Potter film series.
Starring Emma Roberts (Julia's niece) as an engagingly plain yet pretty Nancy, the film opens in the fictional River Heights with a cluttered, unsatisfying action sequence. (Though this does contain the best over-the-kids'-heads joke of the movie, when two crooks argue about a Fire Island vacation.) But soon the film rockets from Nancy's idyllic hometown to messy, multicultural Los Angeles, where Nancy's father has work duties. Nancy sets them up in an opulent old house with a built-in mystery: a Hollywood starlet who drowned in the pool a quarter-century back.
The mystery plotting here is barely more compelling than a typical Scooby Doo episode and perhaps a little condescending to the brainy girls who might dote on the source material. Instead, the film is more interested in exploring the Nancy Drew character in this fish-out-of-water location.
Nancy's penny loafers, perfect posture, and constant use of the surely arcane-to-the-target-audience term "sleuthing" signal her as a creature from a different era. "I like old-fashioned things," she simply explains to a perplexed new classmate, though Nancy does make room amid her dated accoutrements for an iPod and IMDB.
Saddled with an insufferable would-be-cute sidekick (Josh Flitter, the same poor kid currently torturing multiplex audiences alongside Robin Williams in the License to Wed trailer), Roberts' Nancy negotiates a slipshod movie world that isn't quite worthy of the character or the actress. In truth, the most entertaining moment at a recent preview screening occurred offscreen, when sighs and gasps echoed around a theater filled with 12-year-old girls as Nancy leaned in for a chaste peck on the lips with hometown love interest Ned (Max Thieriot).