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No Mystery: 'Spy' is Drab

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 13, 1996

The spying exploits of fictional sixth-grader Harriet M. Welsch have charmed young readers ever since Louise Fitzhugh’s "Harriet the Spy" was published in 1964. I never read the book—I was into Greek myth, soccer and superhero comics myself—but I strongly suspect this movie adaptation, a coproduction of Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures, will disappoint those aging children who have.

Girls currently between 6 and 12 are likely to be the most receptive audiences, not because the movie’s particularly appealing, but because it covers their territory. The story is about the 11-year-old Harriet (played by the sweet-faced Michelle Trachtenberg), who prefers her nanny (a surprisingly tame Rosie O’Donnell) and her pals Sport (Gregory Smith) and Janie (Vanessa Lee Chester) to her far-too-busy parents. But she values her diary over everyone. A self-appointed spy who scrutinizes the suspicious activities of everyone around her then writes down her findings, she has a caustic comment for practically everyone.

When her classmates (including her two friends) read Harriet’s less-than-laudatory comments, they ostracize her. Harriet has to grudgingly apologize to everyone, then learn to write nice things about people.

The movie has its moments, but not many. "Harriet the Spy" is a very draggy affair because Harriet’s exploits are treated like an episodic laundry list. One event follows the other with uninspired banality. The performers—apart from Trachtenberg, who’s a cute little spark—don’t bring this thing to life either. These shortcomings probably won’t bother young viewers, who are likely to sit through the film without incident. But that’s part of the problem: There isn’t much to respond to.

HARRIET THE SPY (PG) — Contains nothing offensive, except a few references to "boobs."

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