In looking through Tim Curry’s filmography, I was somewhat startled to stumble upon a film that bore more than a slight resemblance to Legend in terms of plot. A battle between light and darkness that must reach its conclusion before the cursed land is destroyed completely sound familiar? Yeah, okay, maybe I have a “type” for flicks, but I figured why the hell not. And in the twenty-five years between Legend and The Secret of Moonacre, the story had to have gotten better, right? Children’s movie or not, the storytelling had to have at least improved… right?
Yes. Oh god, yes. Yes it did.
Spoilers lay under the cut.
Already different from Legend is that instead of opening in the big bad’s lair, instead we get a funeral. Cheery already, huh? It seems that our protagonist Maria Merryweather’s father has met his untimely demise and even worse, he left his daughter with almost nothing. She is unsurprisingly shocked to find that her father had actually bankrupted himself, and is confused that his only possession he bequeathed to her is a strange tome titled “The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre”. Especially since Moonacre is where they live—I’d be surprised, too, if I found a book called “The Ancient Chronicles of Fairfax” that wasn’t anything but sarcastic jibes. However, now that Maria has been orphaned, she has been called away to her uncle’s estate and ventures there with her governess Miss Heliotrope.
Once there, Maria not only discovers that her uncle is a complete asshole (two of the first things he did was tell the two to shut up, and then he confiscated the book Maria’s father left her), but also that the estate appears to be filled with a strange magic. Her ceiling is painted with moving stars that shine like the night sky, a piano plays an eerie tune without anyone hitting the keys, and each morning Maria wakes up to a glass of milk, a cookie, and a strange black dress. She has no explanation for these occurrences, and she’s certainly not going to get them from her uncle, who seems furious that such things are even happening at all, so she tries to continue her life as normal. To her joy, one day the estate’s chef reveals to Maria where she can find her book. Eagerly, she settles down to read.
“The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre” tells of a story between the DeNoir family and the Merryweather family. A certain daughter of the DeNoir family was so loved by nature that the moon itself gave her a gift: a set of lovely pearls. During a wedding uniting the two families, the families present their gifts, marking their newly forged friendship. To further cement this, the DeNoir daughter—who has since been dubbed the moon princess—gifts her pearls to both families. These pearls, which have wish granting properties, incite jealousy and greed between the families and eventually tear them apart. Needless to say, the moon princess is pissed. She hides the pearls and decrees that if a future moon princess doesn’t reconcile the two families within five thousand moons time and return the pearls to the ocean, then Moonacre will be trapped in darkness forever.
After Maria finishes the tale, the chef tells her that he believes her to be the next moon princess. She’s not entirely thrilled by this prospect and runs away. When she does so, she is called to a hollowed out tree where she meets a strange woman named Loveday. She instructs Maria not to abandon her calling, and decides to help the poor girl out by showing her to the DeNoirs’ castle, agreeing with Maria that perhaps giving them a clue to the location of the pearls will soften things out between them. Spoilers: it doesn’t. In fact, the DeNoir leader (Tim Curry, once more playing his role as the antagonist) believes the Merryweathers have already stolen the pearls for themselves, so he’s not so much up for talking as he is killing Maria.
Eventually, through many struggles and barriers, Maria finds where the pearls are actually located, and with the aid of the DeNoir leader’s son they return the pearls to the sea. People are in love! The curse is broken! Unicorns come out of the ocean! Sure! Why not!? Happy endings all around!
The first thing I have to say is that for a children’s movie, this film is surprisingly robust. I cut out a lot from the synopsis, but every part of this film is vital to the plot. More importantly, it makes sense. I ripped into Legend for having scenes that just didn’t make sense and magic that the audience just has to accept, and true, Moonacre has that too, but the difference here is that Moonacre’s magic builds up to something. The audience is shown early that the stars on the ceiling of Maria’s room move so that later a shooting star can show her vaguely the direction she needs to go in to find the pearls. The piano plays by itself because it’s a manifestation of the sorrow and lingering love Maria’s uncle has for Lovelace, and vice versa. The magic here isn’t necessarily as flashy as Legend’s, but it sure as hell isn’t a ill-conceived
deus ex machina either.
What I absolutely loved about this film was the protagonist. Maria is a great character. She is also a flawed character (which is part of what makes her so great). Maria is headstrong and brave, but also not afraid to be a bit cowardly when a seemingly-insurmountable task is placed in front of her. She needs the support of the people around her, but sometimes she is also self-contained and unappreciative of the help she is given. She is brilliant and ignorant, and the best part is she is called out on this in the most important way. Near the end of the movie, she’s getting really fed up with the feud between the DeNoirs and the Merryweathers and states that “the real curse of this valley is pride.” However, right afterwards, she refuses to ask the DeNoir son for help despite him knowing the lay of the land better (and not wanting to kill her, that’s important). Someone comments on how that, too, is prideful, and while she doesn’t say it out loud, the expression on her face shows that the statement was an uncomfortable truth. Sure enough, next scene we see her swallowing her pride and asking the boy for help. Unlike Legend’s Princess Lili, Maria is a well-rounded character who isn’t just some play-by for a purity trope.
That’s also another thing I appreciated about this film. As anyone with an elementary level in French knows, noir is the word for black. True enough, the DeNoirs are mean and ruthless, but they are not evil. They’ve been hurt and feel as though they’ve been betrayed by the Merryweathers, and while they’re not good people, neither are the Merryweathers. Outside of Maria, the only other actual members of the Merryweather family we know are her father (who was murdered from borrowing too much money and not paying it back), and her uncle, who is just as bitter and cold as any of the DeNoirs. This false dichotomy of black is evil, white is good—so prevalent in children’s and adult flicks alike—is further dismantled by Loveday, who is one of the nicest characters in the movie and also a DeNoir.
However, despite these good aspects, I’m not necessarily sure I agree with the messages the movie ending up sending at the end. First and foremost, there seemed to be a recurring theme of “women are noisy and annoying”, especially in regards to older women. I think the line was intended to reinforce the idea that yes, Maria’s uncle is an asshole since he’s the one who says it the most, but he was never called out on it. Never disproven directly. Yes, Maria was a badass who saved the world, but the shots that directly followed the uncle’s complaints were focused on Miss Heliotrope doing something loud and obnoxious. Like, yeah, she’s a strange woman, but don’t forget for a moment that she dropped everything to move
to Moonacre Manor with Maria and has been nothing but supportive and accommodating. The movie really did her wrong.
Secondly, I really really don’t understand how the curse was broken. The original moon princess said that the curse would only be lifted if the families reconciled, but… they didn’t. Or at least it didn’t seem like they did. Maria’s first attempt at getting her uncle to apologize to Loveday—who he spurned on their wedding day because she was a DeNoir—fell through. Her second attempt at getting her uncle to reconcile with the leader of the DeNoirs fell through as well. So… what did she do? Well, she threw herself into the ocean and maybe drowned with her uncle and the three main DeNoirs watching.
I guess the unicorns saved her or something because she’s totally fine, but the curse is lifted despite the families only being brought together because they had the common decency to think “oh shit, this girl just jumped off into a cliff into the ocean” and look really worried. In fact, after Maria re-joins her uncle and the DeNoirs, one of the DeNoir’s lackeys still tries to kill her. Yeah, I don’t think much has been reconciled here.
Despite these comparatively small flaws, I would recommend this movie to any age group. It really has a deep message of “don’t let your pride and greed destroy you”, and the side love story is pretty realistic in that it doesn’t show Loveday and Maria’s uncle making up immediately after they’re reunited. (Also, Maria doesn’t really have a love story! Yay!) Even though The Secret of Moonacre wasn’t an exact match up to Legend’s plot re: the battle between good and evil, the conflicts it does present are much more compelling and worthwhile. And Tim Curry’s talents aren’t wasted! Everyone wins.
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This film is based on the book The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It is much better than the film, and definitely worth tracking a copy down.
Yes, I loved ‘The Little White Horse,’ it’s actually on my list of top favorite books. I feel like the movie did very little justice to it. Yeah, I know lots of book-to-film adaptations do that, but in this case it just felt so wasted since the book was SO. GREAT.
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