Review: ‘Secret Garden’ pales to 1993 film, but is warm blanket of familiarity

Dixie Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst and Amir Wilson appear in a scene from “The Secret Garden.” (STXfilms via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Secret Garden'

We may still be a few weeks away from movies widely returning to theaters, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some family-friendly options debuting straight to streaming.

This Friday, we get a remake of “The Secret Garden,” which pales in comparison to the 1993 children’s flick but still provides a warm blanket of familiarity during a chaotic time.

Based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the story opens in 1947 India, where the daughter of British colonials is orphaned by cholera and sent to live with her widowed uncle in Yorkshire, England. She overcomes her spoiled nature by wandering the vast estate, leading her to discover a magical garden located on the grounds.

The success of the movie hinges on 14-year-old lead actress Dixie Egerickx. Born on Halloween, she fittingly broke through in the horror film “The Little Stranger” (2018) by Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”). In “Secret Garden,” she capably carries the film by giving Mary Lennox a mischievous self-sufficiency to which young viewers will certainly relate.

Her relative inexperience is balanced by British screen veterans in the adult roles. Oscar winner Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) is believably detached as her grieving uncle Archibald Craven, while Golden Globe winner Julie Walters (“Educating Rita”) is imposing as the strict caretaker Mrs. Medlock. Think of her as a less sinister take on Mrs. Danvers.

The one disappointing role is the bedridden Colin Craven, not a fault of child actor Edan Hayhurst but rather due to a shift in presentation. We understand his atrophied legs in a wheelchair, but the 1993 film did a better job at emphasizing his pale skin due to a lack of sunlight. This created more of a gothic tone that made his cries in the night scarier.

Thus, the 1993 film remains the definitive version thanks to director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”), cinematographer Roger Deakins (“1917”) and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”). Not only did it earn a BAFTA nod for Maggie Smith, but it also launched Kate Maberly to play Wendy in “Finding Neverland” (2004).

And yet, it’s unfair to say, “How dare they reboot it!” After all, the 1993 version was itself a remake of the 1919 Paramount silent film and the 1949 MGM talkie starring Margaret O’Brien as Mary and Dean Stockwell as Colin. Both were black and white, though the later used Technicolor for the restored garden scene a la “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).

The 2020 remake delivers an equally wondrous garden, from a golden canopy to larger-than-life plants like “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.” Three-time BAFTA winning director Marc Munden contrasts the lush garden visuals with a muted palette inside the estate for a subdued tone that might test kids’ patience until the garden drops their jaws in awe.

Adapted by screenwriter Jack Thorne (“Wonder”), the script changes a few things from previous versions, routinely flashing back to Mary’s dead parents on the Eve of Partition between India and Pakistan, while casting people of color (Isis Davis and Amir Wilson) as Martha and Dickon Sowerby, who renames an adorable stray dog from Jemima to Hector.

It all builds to the most drastic change: a fiery finale with echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), which gets its own Netflix remake on Oct. 21. It’s a risky move to turn Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Misselthwaite Manor into Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, but the homage provides supernatural glimpses of ghostly parents between the flames.

At the very least, it may inspire you to see the 1993 film, one of the British Film Institute’s 50 films to see by age 15. The remake doesn’t break new ground, but we’ve seen enough surprises in the real world this year that it’s nice to a have a familiar story to wrap ourselves in like a warm blanket. “If you look the right way, the whole world is a garden.”

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