The character of Nancy Drew has been around since 1930 and her books have been read by three or four different generations. As is often the case, a character evolves as the world around her advances. The Nancy Drew of the 1950s was as foreign to the original Nancy Drew as the one in Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase was to the one in the 1950s.
And that's a good thing.
I remember reading the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books growing up mostly due to my insatiable thirst for good mystery stories. I'm a sucker for a young ingenue that uses his or her wits to get one over on the bad guys. The character that I grew up on was much different than the tough and tumble original protagonist that often carried a revolver around. Hey, it was a different time back then.
My wife also grew up on the Nancy Drew stories, so we were excited to share this character with our 7-year-old daughter. The one thing we noticed right away was how different this character was from the crime fighter we adored as kids. What our daughter saw was an accessible young female who was quick and snarky and proved that no matter what era you are from, Nancy Drew is someone that simply kicks ass.
In Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, Nancy and her newly widowed dad Carson move to small-town River Heights from Chicago. Nancy is having trouble acclimating to the slower pace and the town is in the middle of a hotly contested campaign over a train referendum that would either help to modernize River Heights or keep it a quaint little secret. In the midst of this debate, Nancy is given the opportunity to investigate ghostly activity at the old Twin Elms mansion.
The marketing strategy of this movie was beyond strange. It debuted in theaters on March 15 to little or no fanfare and here it is on Blu-ray and DVD two weeks later. The film was produced by Ellen DeGeneres and lead star Sophia Lillis is literally the current It girl thanks to her star turn in the latest Stephen King adaptation.
And yet, despite all of this, the film was almost secretly released with little regard for the actual film itself. That's too bad because the film is head and shoulders better than the last cinematic forway by Nancy Drew in 2007. The latest incarnation is far from flawless, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much my entire family enjoyed it.
The main reason for the film's success lies at the very capable feet of Sophia Lillis who expertly captures the snarky character of a modern-day Nancy Drew. No, this isn't your mother's Nancy Drew, but that's sort of the point. The story has been completely updated to include modern technology and yet the small-town setting allows the story to get away with certain aww shucks moments that would be near impossible in a more urban setting.
It also helps that the filmmaker surrounded Lillis with top-notch character actors such as Sam Trammell and Linda Lavin. But make no mistake, it's Lillis' show and she's able to defuse any situation with a quip or a smile that allows the younger set not to take the proceedings too seriously. There was one sequence that seemed to spook our kids a bit, but the movie quickly moves on from this and debunks it just as fast.
At the end of the day, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is a head-scratcher. The film is practically a direct-to-video movie that guarantees there won't be a sequel, but I wouldn't mind seeing these actors take another crack or two at the character. It will certainly find a more agreeable audience on home entertainment, but Sophia Lillis is on the cusp of superstardom and her price is only going to go up.
So, enjoy Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase for what it is, a quirky modern take on a beloved character that proves the theorem that you can successfully bring older characters into the current landscape. With a new Nancy Drew TV series in the works over at CW, perhaps this movie can provide them with a blueprint to take the character to even grander heights.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.