NEW YORK — THE Secret Garden" is a noble experiment. This engaging Warner Bros. movie brings together a respected European director, known for sophisticated and provocative art films, with a classic of children's literature that young folks have enjoyed since the early part of this century.
The result of this union is a Hollywood rarity: an intelligently conceived and finely crafted picture with a G rating, a tag normally shunned by ambitious filmmakers because of its association with kiddie cartoons and squeaky-clean dullness.
Could this be the beginning of a trend? Quite possibly, if "The Secret Garden" becomes a hit - which it surely will, if moviegoers who've been calling for more wholesome fare now vote with their dollars at the box office.
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose other books include "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "A Little Princess," "The Secret Garden" takes place on an isolated Yorkshire estate with more than its share of mysteries - especially in the eyes of 10-year-old Mary Lennox, a self-centered child sent there from India after the death of her mother.
The master of the house is a morbid, brooding man who never recovered from his own wife's untimely demise. The other inhabitant is his son Colin, a morbid and brooding little boy who's convinced he'll never live past childhood.
The grounds of Misselthwaite Manor are as forbidding as the residents, except for a forbidden area that Mary - with the impish courage of a typical storybook heroine - immediately claims as her favorite spot. Her secret project there, bringing an abandoned garden into bloom and learning the joys of living in the process, is joined by a slowly widening circle of friends. Together they discover the blessings of honest labor, sweet companionship, and the beneficent wonders of nature.
Burnett was a practical-minded author who wrote as much to earn a living as to create literary art, and she was careful not to contradict the social conventions of her time. Her novel has a sneaking male bias, beginning as Mary's story but gradually switching its focus to Colin, the principal recipient of Mary's feminine talent for nurturing and nourishing the needy. The novel also takes care not to question the British class system or the material privileges of the wealthy.
Agnieszka Holland's film version puts the story in a slightly more modern light. It keeps Mary as the main center of interest throughout the tale, although Colin does grab the climactic scene, and it tones down some language in the book that might now be taken as racially insensitive. The children live less in a world of their own and (unfortunately) spend less time fooling the adults with uproarious ruses.
Also gone is Hodgson's constant promotion of hard work as the path to happiness. The filmmakers can't resist their not-so-secret garden of special effects, and Misselthwaite bursts into bloom more through the magic of time-lapse photography than anything the young gardeners have done.
What the movie does retain is the novel's exuberant delight with the natural world and its Dickensian willingness to take children every bit as seriously as the grownups around them. Although the screenplay by Caroline Thompson is not as resolutely structured or earnestly emotional as Hodgson's broadly sketched narrative, it captures a sense of childlike wonder with enough strength and sincerity to be called an accurate reflection of the volume that inspired it.
Holland has shown a recurring fascination with young characters in her recent films, including the double-titled duo called "Europa Europa" and "Olivier Olivier."
"The Secret Garden" finds her continuing the exploration of youth without substantially deepening her understanding of that rich territory.
While she has done a capable job of directing the picture, much credit for its success goes to two of her collaborators: Roger Deakins, a cinematographer with a superb gift for orchestrating light and darkness, and Zbigniew Preisner, who composed the characteristically haunting score. (Listen for Linda Ronstadt on the soundtrack, too.)
The good cast includes Kate Maberly as the heroine, Heydon Prowse as Colin, and Andrew Knott as Dickon, the local nature-boy with a gift for charming both plants and animals.
Maggie Smith heads the adult contingent as Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper who doesn't know quite what to make of the children in her care. John Lynch is weirdly effective as the lord of the manor.
Measured against family-film classics like "The Wizard of Oz" or "The Black Stallion," to mention just two of my favorites, "The Secret Garden" is a bit slender, neither as ingeniously inventive nor as majestically mysterious as the best of its breed.
But the movie comes as a refreshing breeze in this summer of Spielberg and Schwarzenegger silliness and promises to put new oomph into Hollywood's slowly dawning commitment to a new age of family filmmaking.
* "The Secret Garden" has a G rating and should be suitable for even the youngest moviegoers.