“The Secret Garden” is one of the more enduring titles in children’s literature, having been adapted for the screen multiple times, including a splendid 1993 version. That’s the backdrop to the latest movie based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, which makes puzzling choices in harvesting the material, mostly providing an incentive to go back and watch the last one again.
The new film boasts an impressive pedigree — it’s billed as coming from the makers of the Harry Potter series, mostly notably producer David Heyman — and a cast that includes Colin Firth and Julie Walters. The story, however, develops slowly, shifts the 1911 book into a post-World War II timeframe without much reason and makes a significant change in the final act that the project could have surely done without.
At its core, there’s still the uplifting tale of an orphaned young girl, Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), and the healing power she brings to the insulated estate to which she is sent. After a fleeting introduction, Mary is forced to go live with her distant, sullen uncle by marriage (Firth), still bearing emotionally scars over the death of his wife, her mother’s sister.
Banging around the giant manor, Mary encounters Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her uncle’s son, who is bedridden, fragile, spoiled, and as surly as she is. Gradually, she coaxes him to venture out into the grounds with her to explore the untended, neglected garden she has discovered, joined by another boy, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who has a way with animals and admirable patience with his two more privileged companions.
Directed by Marc Munden, this latest “Garden” is, inevitably, still lovely to look at with all those vibrant colors, perhaps especially in its celebration of nature at a time when people have been cooped up. But it’s not as magical as it should be, which might stem in from feeling more Disney-fied in its trappings, including a stray dog and darting birds. There are also flashbacks to Mary’s parents, which actually serves to make them — and her experience — less interesting, and the film more conspicuously manipulative.
Granted, movie companies don’t really need much excuse to remake a beloved classic every generation or so, and the latest iteration isn’t bad for parents looking to introduce “The Secret Garden” to their kids.
Still, the tradeoff of that includes the inevitable comparisons to what’s been done before, and by that standard, this “Secret Garden” can remain overlooked, while hoping for more from the next incarnation, if history is any guide, probably destined for some time during the 2040s.
“The Secret Garden” premieres on demand in the US on Aug. 7.