Seven year old Nathaniel was much beloved by his Great Aunt Eleanor and struggles to cope with her death. Upon inheriting Eleanor's vast crumbling house by the sea, Nathaniel arrives with his mother, father and mean older sister Angelica to discover she bequeathed them two more gifts. For Angelica there is an antique doll with which she is none too impressed. Nathaniel is equally aghast to find he has inherited Eleanor's enormous secret library full of first edition books. The problem is poor Nathaniel has severe learning difficulties. He cannot read. Aunt Eleanor's gift almost seems like a cruel joke. That is until Nathaniel meets the tiny fairytale characters that live inside each book: Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Puss in Boots, Peter Pan, Mowgli and Baloo the Bear, Cinderella, Pinocchio and his most favourite of all, Alice in Wonderland with whom he is quite smitten. It turns out Eleanor's collection is no mere library but the source of all fairytales in the world. Now the fictional characters need Nathaniel's help. Unless he recites the magic spell inscribed in the library all the stories shall disappear forever. But of course, Nathaniel cannot read...
There is a beguiling storybook feel to this French-Italian animation that befits a story enamoured with the written word. Its heady dreamlike imagery (whirlwinds made of letters, giant storybooks opening doorways to otherworldly realms) conveys the beauty of words and stories far more artfully than such thematically similar films as The Pagemaster (1994) or even the otherwise underrated Inkheart (2008). Things get off to a spellbinding start with an opening sequence slightly reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro (1988) wherein the children draw the curtains in the old house chasing shadows away and awakening memories of Great Aunt Eleanor, voiced in the original version by French screen legend Jeanne Moreau. Veteran comedic actor Pierre Richard provides the voice of Adrien, Eleanor's feisty neighbour. The strange English dub, which sounds Canadian, serves up a mishmash of accents wherein Nathaniel's American-sounding parents somehow sired a French-Canadian accented son and a British-sounding daughter. Some clunky dialogue enthuses about the importance of dreams in less than subtle fashion yet is offset by the eloquence of the often beautiful animation.
French animator Dominique Monferey got his start at Disney working on animation for television and the big screen. His assignments included completing the long-delayed collaboration between Walt Disney and surrealist artist Salvador Dali, Destino (2003) which marked his directorial debut. Monferey also worked on independent and European animated features like Boo, Zino & the Snurks (2004) and A Monster in Paris (2011) before mounting his first full-length animated film with the comparatively underwhelming Franklin and the Turtle Lake Treasure (2006). With his second film, Montferey and screenwriter Anik Leray lift a fair amount from Toy Story 2 (1999). Not only do the fictional characters come alive as tiny toy-like beings (Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf share a surprisingly moving relationship!) but the plot involves an unscrupulous collector pinching Eleanor's priceless first editions for his own greedy ends. Shrunk down to tiny size by bad-tempered witch Carabosse, Nathaniel ends up trapped in the warehouse along with his fictional friends. Whereupon Pinocchio boosts his confidence with some 'magic glasses' (yes, his nose does grow as result of this little white lie) and our young hero embarks on an epic adventure back to the library along with Alice, the White Rabbit and a slightly scary Ogre intent on eating him. Happily, Alice talks him out of it.
Interestingly for a film enthusing the value of stories, the protagonists find more adventure in the real world. The shrunken heroes find themselves at the mercy of the elements, giant crabs, birds and most memorably a curious toddler building sandcastles on the beach in scenes reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). This being a French cartoon there is also some romantic tension between a winsome Alice and flustered young Nathaniel. To its credit, Eleanor's Secret touches a theme rarely dealt with in family films which is learning difficulties. Nathaniel is initially mortified to inherit a library feeling it draws attention to a handicap he would much rather ignore. The film's grasp of child psychology rings true as both Nathaniel and Angelica indulge in bratty behaviour as a means of masking their own insecurities. Both end up confronting their own faults and find a way to make things right in pleasing fairytale fashion. Admittedly the film's core message that all a child needs to overcome a disability is tenacity and self-belief is a tad naïve but when taken as a fable rather than literally remains heartening.