Maria Merryweather, a 13-year-old orphan, is forced to live with her stern, taciturn uncle, Sir Benjamin (Ioan Gruffud), on his country estate. Her only inheritance is a book from her father, a tome that chronicles the ancient feud between her family and their neighbours, the De Noirs, over a set of magical pearls. As she reads on, Maria discovers her own destiny, to find the pearls and end the feud. Elizabeth Goudge's novel The Little White Horse was a childhood favourite of JK Rowling, apparently. Certainly the producers of this uneven and ultimately disappointing adaptation must have relished that titbit, as they put together what looks - on paper - something of a dream team. The director, Gabor Csupo, was an animator and writer for The Simpsons and Rugrats before his impressive feature film debut, The Bridge of Terabithia. The excellent Dakota Blue Richards, who stars as Maria, came straight from The Golden Compass. The costumes are fabulous. The sets - chiefly a splendidly ramshackle country estate - are impressive. Yet the film starts slowly and fails to pick up. The production feels thrown together and the performances are all over the place: Gruffudd shoots for Brontëesque mystery, while Stevenson seems to think she's doing children's theatre. McElhone's moon princess is another weak point. The special effects are equally variable. Bookish youngsters may find it mildly diverting but this secret isn't a keeper.
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