The Canterville Ghost – Film Review

In 1887, deep in the English countryside, it is said that a spirit haunts the grounds of Canterville Chase.

The lavish mansion and the surrounding gardens have been the site of various supernatural occurrences for generations. The source? A 300-year-old ghost named Sir Simon de Canterville (Stephen Fry), a nobleman cursed to neither live nor die as punishment for a vile crime. But when it comes to real estate never let a haunting get in the way of a bargain!

Hiram Otis (David Harewood) an American man of science and his family, have travelled to England to bring the magic of electricity to the Brits. Wife Lucretia (Meera Syal) and their mischievous twin boys immediately fall in love with the manor. However, their eldest Virginia (Emily Carey) detests the move and her new home. On the very first night, Virginia meets Simon whose attempts to frighten her leave much to be desired. Challenging his ghostly manhood, she bets he cannot scare her family into moving back to America.

But Americans are more pragmatic than Simon‘s regular prey it seems. Over the following months, he keeps at it and his friendship with Virginia grows. She learns about his past and he tries to teach this young girl who thinks she knows it all a little about life, love and sword fighting. As Hiram enlists the help of an amateur Ghost hunter, Mrs Finchley (Miranda Hart) to get rid of the pesky spook, Virginia believes there is another way. It may involve the peculiar walled off garden, a sinister Gardener (Hugh Laurie) and come at a high cost both for Simon and Virginia.

The Canterville Ghost is based upon a short story by legendary poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde. The Canterville Ghost was the first of Wilde‘s stories to be published early in his career. It looks at the importance of empathy, redemption and the differences between American and British culture, all this through a parody of the ghost story genre which is still biting nearly a century and a half later. Now, Space Age Films who worked on the 2022 animated feature ‘The Amazing Maurice’, present the classic tale to a new young audience.

I’m impressed by just how faithfully the film adapts Wilde‘s novella into a kid’s film. There have been some changes to be sure, embellishments to the love story between Vanessa and her new neighbour Henry (Freddie Highmore), as well as his family’s relationship to Sir Simon. Simon‘s crime as well has been lessened to make it more family friendly, something many The Canterville Ghost adaptations have done.

But as a satire, the story feels fresh and subverts many haunted house tropes still in use today. One may think this a rip-off of Beetlejuice with its similar story and humour. The truth is, Wilde set the tone for Tim Burton in the first place. That said, this is more a testament to Wilde‘s brilliance than that of the film’s screenwriters, as many of the childish gags unfortunately fall flat.

It isn’t all bad however and this film is not without its own moments. Miranda Hart is hilarious in the role of the eccentric ghost hunter Mrs Finchley with her steampunk gadgets. Fry is also great as always, as the humorously inept but endearing Sir Simon. Not to mention as a fan of ‘Fry and Laurie‘, it is incredible seeing (or hearing) the double act reunite on screen. Although, I do wish they had more scenes together.

The animation throughout reminded me of early 2000s point and click adventure games, a somewhat cheaper looking aesthetic which I can’t say is for everyone in 2024 but it works wonders for my sense of nostalgia. The changes in style over the course of the film are interesting, particularly the otherworldliness seen within ‘The Walled Garden’.

Producer and star Stephen Fry played Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film, ‘Wilde’ and clearly has great respect for the man. The Canterville Ghost is without a doubt a passion project for those involved. It doesn’t have the high production values of the latest Dreamworks or Disney animations but it is full of heart, an adaptation which holds onto the prestige of its source material thanks to an impressive cast list.

Most importantly, The Canterville Ghost delivers an amusing adventure for its young target audience.

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