Young sleuth uncovers pure pre-teen fun

July 10, 1996|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Face constantly pressed up against a window, eyes always observing, pen frantically staining her beloved notebook, Harriet the 007 of the sixth grade, without the international intrigue and Scandinavian sirens.

"Harriet the Spy," based on the award-winning 1964 book by Louise Fitzhugh, is a hip, sophisticated children's story with a gleeful, cynical edge including a pageant parody featuring dancing gravy.

Pre-pubescent protagonist Harriet Welsch is determined to become a great writer. To achieve this goal, her nanny Ole Golly (Rosie O'Donnell) advises her to write down everything she sees. Harriet takes this as the gospel and carries her "private" notebook everywhere. She embarks on clandestine, after-school "spy" missions, in addition to writing wry observations about her classmates.

Her snooty class rival, a mini Alicia Silverstone strutting down the halls in prep-school chic duds, gets hold of her notebook, and reads all the juicy tidbits aloud to the sixth grade. As a result, Harriet becomes a temporary pariah.

These kids aren't syrupy sitcom bores. They have thoughts that veer from sugar and spice, to dark and cutting.

Harriet prophesies her mild-mannered, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing darling of a schoolmarm will eventually crack and take off on a killing spree. Meanwhile, her buddy Janie suggests a holiday pageant based on the Manhattan Project.

Michelle Trachtenberg, as Harriet, defies cutesiness and predictability. With her friends, she's warm, giggly and devoted; as a spy she's cool, cocky and sly. And when she faces the disdain of her classmates, she strains to maintain her dignity, sitting upright and stern in her chairbut then crying at home in bed. When she begins to take revenge on her peers, she becomes even more miserable, because she sees her potential to hurt others. The revenge-hurts-the-avenger theme is one of many mature ideas in the film. Lesson-learning isn't exclusively for kids, though. Harriet's parents make her surrender her notebook, with disastrous results.

Extremely modern in some ways (Harriet's parents send her to a method shrink who evaluates by observation and interaction, not a barrage of questions) the movie still manages a charming, timeless feel. It's constantly in bright, cartoon motion, with familiar all-American city sights: family-owned grocery stores, classic cars. The supporting characters are quaint and campy (a former tycoon who now is a "delivery boy," a Kramer-esque writer struggling to get a break; an old man with a trillion cats who makes bird cages for a living.)

Rosie O'Donnell is an engagingly soothing presence as a cool Mary Poppins with advice and a bedside manner to die for.

And the best thing about "Harriet the Spy," is that to enjoy this funky mix of kids with attitude, crisp humor and themes that are resonant without being sappy and cloying, you don't have to make like the daring hero and look through your binoculars.

'Harriet the Spy'

Starring Michelle Trachtenberg, Rosie O'Donnell

Directed by Bronwen Hughes

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated PG

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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