Not enough can be said about my love for Nickelodeon growing up in the 1980s and 90s. You may remember two years ago when I composed a three-part article on my admiration for the network and all its classic programming. Hell, you may even recall when I paid tribute to their Nicktoons. Well, after the numerous game shows, sketch programs, cartoons, and sitcoms, Nick decided to tackle another form of entertainment: motion pictures. In 1995, they formed their own film division and went to work on raking in the dollars from young theater audiences.
One year later, in 1996, Nickelodeon Movies unveiled its first film, an adaptation of the timeless children’s novel, Harriet the Spy. It starred Michelle Trachtenberg as the titular character and Rosie O’Donnell as her nanny, Golly. Trachtenberg was no stranger to Nick as she previously appeared in a recurring role on The Adventures of Pete & Pete as Little Pete’s friend, Nona. The fact that she was only about 10-years-old at the time of filming made her the perfect choice to play Harriet M. Welsch. She even won a Young Artist award for her role. The always outspoken O’Donnell was noted for her work on the network as well hosting the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards several times and lending her voice to an episode of Ren & Stimpy.
The feature opens with our nosy main character, Harriet, armed with her trusty notebook and carefully observing various people at a market in her home of New York City. We find out that Harriet is an aspiring writing who takes notes of literally everything she sees in hopes of taking her observational skills to later carve out a career as a… well… spy. Soon after, we meet Harriet’s two best friends, Janie, a science geek, and Sport, the son of a struggling author. Through the words of Harriet, we examine her other sixth grade classmates, all of whom Harriet writes disparaging remarks about in her journal. These rambunctious youngsters are Laura Peters, Carrie Andrews, Beth Ellen Hanson, Pinky Whitehead (yes, that’s his name), and an unidentified kid who’s called “the kid in the purple socks”. Rounding out the sea of adolescents is Harriet’s sworn nemesis, the affluent and stuck-up, Marion Hawthrone, who is running against her for class president. Like most Manhattan parents, Harriet’s aren’t around often so she forms a strong bond with Golly but soon, the friendship is interrupted when Golly is dismissed from her job after keeping Harriet out late one night. Despite this, Harriet continues to spy on people but is soon caught for the first time by a wealthy New York resident and is promptly ejected from her home, making her doubt her skills. Things start to get worse when Harriet’s journal is found and all her classmates, including Sport and Janie, read the not so nice things she’s been writing about them. As a result, the whole class turns on her and after a cruel prank involving a class painting project, the young detective vows revenge. She proceeds to make all her former buddies’ lives miserable even bringing Marion to tears by suggesting that her father abandoned her because he didn’t love her.
When her parents notice her change in behavior and obsession with writing, Harriet is sent to therapy where it’s discovered how strong her passion for expressing her thoughts with her notebooks truly is. Eventually, she’s forgiven by Janie, Sport, and the rest of her classmates and while, she doesn’t win the presidency, she becomes the school’s newspaper editor to help feed her future profession.
And of course, no children’s movie from the 90s is complete without a dance number as Harriet and her classmates perform a little jig while acting in a play.
Yes, as you can probably tell, I totally saw this movie on opening weekend. Me and Trachtenberg are around the same age so this definitely was catered towards my demographic. At the time, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was preceded by the pilot for Hey Arnold!. I had no clue that this would eventually become a Nicktoon but my 10-year-old self was having a blast watching an animated program right before the feature presentation.
Overall, I loved the film as a kid. In addition to seeing it in theaters, I bought it on VHS when it was released. The tape was orange, Nick’s trademark color, and was a nice nod to their signature. While I don’t like it nearly as much as I did when I was a child, I still found it to be genuinely charming upon rewatching it recently. The performances are actually pretty good and it’s surprisingly smart for a kid’s flick. I mean, let’s face it, Harriet the Spy isn’t nearly as bad as some of the awful garbage Nickelodeon Movies would put out later on (*cough*TheLastAirbender*cough*). You’re probably wondering if the director, Bronwen Hughes, ever went on to do anything else. Remember that cheesy 1999 romcom, Forces of Natures, starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock? Yup, that was Hughes. Gee, I certainly wonder why she didn’t have a longer shelf life directing films in Hollywood.
Something I really noticed about this film the second time around was its above average soundtrack. Sure, it closes with the James Brown classic “Get Up Offa That Thing” but there’s riveting jazz and swing numbers played all throughout which pleases the ear. I’m sad I didn’t appreciate this when I was younger. Singer, Jill Sobule, wrote a song for the soundtrack called The Secretive Life and even shot an espionage inspired music video for it. I remember Nickelodeon airing it several times in between shows and thinking it would fit more at home as the theme to a James Bond flick.
Another thing I want to touch on is the Harriet the Spy-themed contest they advertised on Nickelodeon around the time of its release. One night, during SNICK, both Trachtenberg and O’Donnell appeared throughout the night encouraging viewers to stick around for the entire programming block so they can give out a toll-free phone number that they can call and try to win a nifty toy spy kit reminiscent of the movie. You damn well know that I sat my behind in front of the television set the entire night waiting for the number to be given out trying to be one of the lucky first 50 kids to win the gnarly set. Unfortunately, I failed pretty hard even after I rapidly ran by chubby fingers all over my cordless phone trying to win. All I got was a busy signal. My entire weekend was ruined. Life goes on, I guess.
And while a remake isn’t on the horizon, instead, a 2010 direct-to-Disney channel sequel ended up on the books. The film in question, Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars, updates the technology from its 1996 predecessor with online blogging. Poor Louise Fitzhugh wouldn’t have approved of such garbage.