Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Famous Five, on Hulu

Enid Blyton was a veritable one-woman Stratemeyer Syndicate. She single-handedly wrote many long-running British children’s mystery series. Blyton produced multiple volumes in her “Secret Seven,” “Barney Mysteries,” and “Five Find-Outers” franchises, but her “The Famous Five” series was her arguably her most popular. One of the five is a smart dog named Timmy, which surely helps explain their success. They are supposed to be old-fashioned and skew towards a youthful audience, so who better to shepherd their return to television than Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the Pusher trilogy and Only God Forgives? Parents will be relieved to hear he adapted his style to suit the material rather than vice versa, so the kids can safely watch the six-episode The Famous Five when it premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

Supposedly, George [not Georgina] Kirrin is the only person who visits her family’s reputedly haunted Kirrin Island, so she is surprised to find Timmy wagging his tail there, When she returns later with her three visiting cousins, Julian, Anne, and Dick Barnard, they assume his owner was the dead man in the diving suit sprawled on the beach. In a Refn film, Timmy would similarly wind up leaving with the assassin who massacres the four children during the climax, but that won’t happen here. If the cousins get killed, Timmy will stay loyal to them.

Initially, George resents their presence, fancying herself a lone wolf. However, she needs their help investigating the strange happenings afoot on Kirrin Island. Apparently, Thomas Wentworth, the creepy local blue blood, seeks a mythical Templar treasure, but George intends to beat him to it. The trail will take them to London and then back to Kirrin Island again. Of course, Timmy sticks with them every step of the way.

In the UK,
The Famous Five aired in three feature-length installments, but Hulu repackaged the first season into six episodes (three two-parters). Presumably, they wanted to encourage impulse streaming, since the Famous Five are not as famous in the U.S. The second two-fer, “Peril on the Night Train,” features pre-WWII German agents as the villains, perhaps to appeal to Indiana Jones fans.

Anne Barnard thinks Kirrin Cottage is haunted, but the mystery figure is in fact a spy out to steal Uncle (or father) Quentin’s newest invention. With war looming, his Enigma Machine-like “Algebra Box” has huge national security applications. Mr. Roland, an undercover British agent, will escort the Kirrin family to a secret military facility in Scotland, even though the overnight train is a perfect setting for the foreign operatives to strike again.

Much to her own surprise, George is sorry her cousins must soon leave in “The Eye of the Sunrise,” but she quickly meets a new friend. Unfortunately, she loses “The Great Supremo” just as quickly. For their last hurrah, the Barnard cousins agree to help rescue the circus hypnotist from the sinister mental hospital holding him prisoner.

The Famous Five
is clearly produced for younger viewers, but smarter kids should dig its caperiness. The pre-War intrigue of “Night Train” and “Eye of the Sunrise” should at least moderately engage mature adults as well. However, the bossy George and goody-two-shoes Julian both get to be rather tiresome. Counterintuitively, the two youngest cousins, Dick and Anne, hold up the best over the course of the six (or three) episodes.

Nevertheless, Diaana Babnicova has impressive screen presence as George. Her potential star-power is undeniable, even when her character is abrasively annoying. Kit Rakusen and Flora Jakoby Richardson contribute a lot of energy as Cousins Dick and Anne. However, James Lance (a.k.a. Trent Crimm of
The Independent in Ted Lasso) seems miscast as Uncle Quentin. Of course, the real star is Kip, who out-charms everyone playing Timmy.

The Famous Five
is a polished-looking period production. It is clear Refn and series directors Tim Kirkby, Assim Abbasi, and Bill Eagles have an affinity for the vintage mystery elements. Most viewers over the age of twelve would probably prefer a little less brattiness and George’s parents are ridiculously clueless, but there is no objectionable or overtly ideological content. Generally, it is a nice show for kids (what a concept). Recommended for families, The Famous Five starts streaming Friday (5/31) on Hulu.