Nancy Drew (Emma Roberts), super-smart teen sleuth and heroine of a hundred paperback mysteries, foils a notorious burglary ring to the delight of klutzy local cops and her circle of adoring friends. But following a brush with death, Nancy’s worried father (Tate Donovan) makes her swear she’ll give up sleuthing when they leave their small town, River Heights, for glitzy Los Angeles. Initially delighted when they move into a spooky mansion that once belonged to murdered movie star Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring), poor Nancy soon finds herself a fish out of water. Hipper than thou L.A. kids make fun of her retro style and the fact she’s smart, polite and, well, brilliant at everything.
Disheartened, Nancy throws herself into solving the mystery of Draycott’s missing millions, aided by annoying fat kid Corky (Josh Flitter), who has a crush her (“I think the ability to sleuth is an attractive quality in a woman”), and lovelorn small town boyfriend Ned (Max Thierot). The trail of clues leads to creepy caretaker John Leshing (Marshall Bell) and later, Dehlia’s long-lost daughter Jane Brighton (Rachael Leigh Cook), a struggling single mother. Nancy is determined to find the money for Jane, but a mystery phone caller makes veiled threats and her life is threatened by killer cars, bombs and hired goons.
Brought to literary life by Carolyn Keene - actually a collective pseudonym for writer Mildred A. Wirt Benson, editor Harriet Stratemeyer and her publisher father Edward Stratemeyer, who mapped out the original series - Nancy Drew first graced the silver screen back in the 1930s with four films starring Bonita Granville. Pamela Sue Martin and Janet Louise Johnson played her in television’s popular The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977-79 and we’ve since had Tracy Ryan in a one-off revival in 1995 and a 2002 Disney TV movie starring Maggie Lawson.
This witty update kicks off with some lively animated credits that nicely establish Nancy’s literary universe, before pitching her into a setting tailored for the Bratz generation. It’s a change of pace for Andrew Fleming, whose idiosyncratic work includes flawed efforts like Threesome (1994), The Craft (1996) and the underrated Dick (1999). Fleming and co-screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen weave in a typical kids’ movie message about staying true to yourself, but craft a well-paced mystery that engrosses throughout.
Most impressively, young Miss Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) is a sprightly and engaging as precocious know-it-all Nancy Drew. “You’re a makeover waiting to happen”, jeers one obnoxious character, but the script subverts that particular teen cliché. While Nancy never exactly fits in, she retains her own, distinctive style in the face of overwhelming rudeness. She’s a sweet, smart junior sleuth who can disable a bomb, perform an emergency tracheotomy, and has a knack for drawing criminal confessions with tasty baked treats. Fleming and Paulsen briefly psychoanalyse the young heroine when, asked about her late mother, Nancy tellingly replies: “She’s a mystery.”
While the clash between small town girl and L.A. cynicism could have been explored with more depth, the mystery unfolds via several inspired cinematic flourishes and a refreshing willingness to place the child heroine in real peril. Corky’s would-be comic antics wear thin, but there are funny gags about Nancy’s ability to take so many death threats in her stride (“It really gets my goat when someone tries to kill me. It’s so rude.”), plus an unexpected cameo from Bruce Willis - who tries to get Nancy to direct his next movie.
There aren’t many kids movies that can stage a decent car chase or ensure the puppy love between juvenile leads stays sweet instead of cloying. It builds to a hilarious climax centred around Draycott’s booby trap laden mansion, where Nancy talks her way out of being shot or strangled, doles out the villain’s comeuppance, and follows it with a girly chat about shoes while he lies in a crumpled heap. The film also features a pretty cool retro jazz score alongside its teen friendly selection of pop hits.