By Madelyn Ritrosky
(Photo left: Joy Chapman directs Lexi Johnson on the set of Mandie and the Secret Tunnel.)
Mandie Shaw is a country girl, growing up at the turn of the 20th century. She is the heroine of 40+ books written by the late Lois Gladys Leppard between 1983 and 2006. Although she wrote the books later in life, Leppard wrote her first Mandie story when she was just eleven, in the 1930s.
Now Mandie comes to the screen. Although the title is taken from the first novel, the film’s plot actually comes from the first two books. And filmmakers Joy Chapman and Owen Smith plan to make several more Mandie movies based on the books.
Mandie and the Secret Tunnel is an engaging mystery that keeps you guessing about various elements right up to the end. Part of the fun is that even things you thought you more or less knew turn out to be not as they appear.
Sometimes, with movies about kids in that 10-16 age range, there is a certain off-putting quality. For example, there are kids who talk, talk, talk like adults (because the adult writers think the lines are witty); kids who are too smart-alecky to be cute; kids too cutesy to truly be cute, etc.
Not so with Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. I especially liked watching the two teenage girls, Mandie (Lexi Johnson) and her new friend Polly (Amanda Waters), sleuth around Mandie’s uncle’s estate trying to find his will.
His estate is not at all a typical large home. There are all kinds of secret places and, as we gradually discover, a secret history. That secret history then provides revelations about several of the characters and certain events depicted in the film.
The filmmakers actually used two different historic houses, one for the exterior and one for the interior. Both homes help create and are integral to the allure of the story and the look of the film.
For the exterior, they used the historic Moses Cone House in North Carolina. Built in 1900, it is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, sitting atop a hill in a picturesque setting. The interiors were shot in a privately owned eclectic, rustic mansion built in the 1930s.
(Photo left: Co-directors/writer/producers Joy Chapman and Owen Smith)
What’s nice about this film these stories is that it follows a young woman’s journey of self-discovery.
When you look at the balance of stories circulated in the culture and certainly in the movies that make it to the screen, the scales are weighted heavily toward men and their journeys of growth and discovery. So when a film focuses on a woman as the protagonist searching for answers, I applaud that.
Then there are the adults in the cast.
We have Mandie’s original family (living in a small log cabin), her Cherokee friends, the estate caretakers, the comical pretenders to the lost will, plus a couple others who cannot be mentioned without giving away some of the plot.
But I must say, I grew up watching Disney movies with Dean Jones and I really liked him in Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. He brought just the right amount of star power and understated sarcasm to his role as caretaker Jason Bond. The looks he gives the various uninvited guests who show up at the estate are amusing and spot on.
When the film recently screened at the Heartland Film Festival, it was the first big film festival and first competition festival for Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. Filmmakers Joy Chapman and Owen Smith have been out scouting locations and financing for a second film. They are ready to begin another Mandie movie as soon as they can. Their teenage actors are growing up.
Chapman and Smith have formed a partnership where they share, to varying degrees, writing, directing, and producing responsibilities. Chapman said they work well as a team, allotting duties based on their individual strengths.
Their previous credits include a series of five films based on The Sugar Creek Gang book series. Those 70-minute films came out on DVD in 2004 and 2005.
They plan the Mandie movies to be larger films, however, with larger budgets and larger stories. They have already done that by attracting Dean Jones to the first film.
Not only will I be looking forward to the next Mandie film, but ten-year-old Jared and my parents will also be looking forward to it. Mandie and the Secret Tunnel is a family film that is truly enjoyable for the entire family.