Mandie and the Secret Tunnel
More Than a Bit Unfulfilling

Mandie Shaw is a young girl who lives on a homestead with her parents and sister in a remote part of North Carolina. In an odd directorial choice, we get what appears to be a highlights montage over the film’s opening credits: Mandie out bowhunting with her father, a dangerous crossing of a mountain stream, a tragic accident.  Won’t that kind of ruin the story’s suspense?

Not to worry: the sequence is not spoiler-laden foreshadowing; it’s Mandie’s own memories of a past tragedy, one which merely sets the story in motion.  Through a strange mishmash of coverage shots in the first scene, we learn that Mandie’s father Jim was the man in the credits sequence, and that he has indeed died.  Unwanted by her mother and guided by the predictably stoic (but unpredictably grime-free) Cherokee “Uncle Ned,” Mandie flees Charley Gap in favor of her (real) uncle John’s posh plantation… only to find that Uncle John is also presumed dead, lost at sea.  In its first act, the film evokes the memory, if not the drama, of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Only it’s 1899, not 1757. (It’s plausible, of course, that parts of North Carolina could have been that behind-the-times.)

Dean Jones as Jason Bond in Mandie and the Secret Tunnel

As Shaw estate manager Jason Bond leads the search for John Shaw’s will, the film’s second act turn’s into a Secret Garden-style kid’s adventure/mystery, as we find out all about the persecution of the Cherokee Nation, the historic rift between John and Jim Shaw, and the “once upon a time” tale that was the core of Mandie’s bond with her father—and is now the key to the mystery of “the secret tunnel”: the fate of a Cherokee woman whose pregnancy prevented her from taking the Trail of Tears. 

“I wish the Indian princess was real,” says the younger Mandie in flashbacks. “I wish she was my big sister.”  As cat-shooting villains become a bit mawkish, and as the cast dons costumes that don’t look particularly lived in, Uncle Jim’s servant woman Aunt Lou advises Mandie that “you don’t fight the pain; you feel it.”  Mandie is pretty upset about the turn of events, though.  “I’m not asking God for anything,” she says. “I’m too mad at Him.”

So far, so-so.  But then the vaudevillian third act kicks into gear, with Mandie and her new friend Polly exploring inexplicably well-lit hidden rooms with dangerously-handled kerosene lamps that couldn’t possibly be real; with a classic wicked stepmother circling back into the narrative courtesy of an even wickeder stepfather-to-be (yes, the would-be cat-killer); and with interloping treasure hunters Bayne Locke and Gaynelle Snow dropped into the movie straight out of an episode of Dudley Do-right—or the handiest local community theatrical farce.

Though the plot aims to tie all of its story elements together in some meaningful way, I was still left wondering things like: Who is Sam, exactly, and what is he doing in Uncle John’s house (much less this film)?  What function is Mandie’s sister, Irene, supposed to serve?  Why does Mandie’s cat kind of come and go during scenes, with not much rhyme or reason to it? What kind of producer hires the same person for “tunnel construction” and for catering?

At times, I was almost astonished by the ambition of this Little Production That Tried Real Hard.  But the project was, I think, simply beyond the skills of the filmmakers—and beyond either Dean Jones or Lexi Johnson, as Jason and Mandie, to salvage, as appealing as they are here.  In fact, almost all of the performances would have fit perfectly into one of the three acts; but these three acts do not form a cohesive or satisfying whole, and the campiness finally overwhelms whatever spiritual lesson the producers (or the book’s author) may have been trying to impart.

I really regret not being able to recommend a film to much of anyone, but I’m afraid Mandie is just one of those things.  It might, however, keep an impressionable six-year-old engaged—and that’s often not such a bad thing.

Mandie and the Secret Tunnel is unrated, but it’s all very Little House on the Prairie-ish.  Safe as can possibly be, if confusing and dull.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Mandie and the Secret Tunnel.