Story Highlights• "Nancy Drew" doesn't veer much from tradition
• Emma Roberts plays the youthful detective
• Film has all the old tropes: hidden passages, odd clues
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- In the new Nancy Drew feature film -- her first since 1939 -- the youthful detective celebrates her birthday, but she's careful not to reveal her age.
There's a good reason for that. Though the amateur sleuth has been foiling ne'er-do-wells in more than 170 adventures published over the past 78 years, officially she's just 18. (Emma Roberts, who plays her in Andrew Fleming's film, turned 17 in February.)
According to her publishers, Nancy has sold more than 200 million books. Regular makeovers every 15 years or so -- which can extend to rewriting the old books -- have sustained her popularity with generations of young readers.
But the formula remains very much as it was conceived by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which has manufactured the series for all these years (author Carolyn Keene is as fictional as her heroine): Nancy searches for treasure or a missing heir and is warned off the case by a note or a phone call, but this only convinces her she must be on the right track.
Then, an inspired ability to decipher random clues and her eagerness to leave no secret passageway unexplored invariably point her toward the solution.
The film "Nancy Drew" -- which seems to have been pitched as an unlikely combination of "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Clueless" -- is more faithful to this model than it first appears. Fleming and co-writer Tiffany Paulsen has set the story firmly in 2007, but their Nancy Drew is an anachronism who dresses in tweedy skirts, preppy knits and penny-loafers, and whose prim sense of right and wrong (she drinks milk and knows CPR) quickly marks her as a social outcast when she moves from provincial Riverside Heights to a new school, Hollywood High.
This is the Nancy Drew fondly remembered from the good old days. She even drives her original sporty blue roadster (upgraded to a Mustang in the books many years ago). The in crowd is understandably incredulous ("OMG, I'm sitting next to Martha Stewart" texts one) but Nancy is much too independent to worry about what they think.
In any case, she has a mystery to solve.
The house she and dad (Tate Donovan) are renting in Los Angeles once belonged to the old-time movie star Julia Draycock ("old-time" being relative: she was discovered dead in her swimming pool 25 years ago, shortly after re-emerging from an unexplained absence). The manse comes with the requisite creepy caretaker and it's not long before Nancy is uncovering false walls and tunnels that demand further investigation.
Crisply put together but just passably amusing, the movie is innocuous, light, and -- obviously -- very, very slight. It's hard to pinpoint just who the audience might be. Tween girls? Middle-aged fans? Neither group will be completely satisfied.
However, fans worried that their heroine isn't getting the respect she deserves need not fret. It's true that Fleming pokes fun at her rather prissy probity -- refusing to exceed the speed limit during a car chase, for instance -- but Nancy emerges with her virtue intact, as she always has.
Emma Roberts, who has something of her aunt Julia's guilelessness, plays her as a good-hearted innocent. Even her dress sense gets a thumbs-up as Nancy unconsciously kicks off the next big thing: the "New Sincerity." (As if!)
It's hard to remember that in the early 1930s libraries banned these books as tawdry and sensationalist distractions from real literature. Intrepid, capable and practically perfect in every way, Ms. Drew is a role model you would be happy for your teenage daughter to emulate. Of course it's hard to imagine her feeling the same way, but maybe her kid sister might.
"Nancy Drew" is rated PG and runs 99 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Emma Roberts -- Julia's niece -- stars as Nancy Drew in the new "Nancy Drew."