'The Marvellous Inventions of Alvin Fernald', by Clifford B. Hicks, is a really brilliant children's novel about a boy named Alvin who wants to be a scientist AND a detective ... so he devises all sorts of low-tech (but complicated) inventions, which he then uses in his inept attempts to solve mysteries and crimes. He is assisted (if that's the right word) by his pal Wilfred Shoemaker, nicknamed Shoey (an athlete and acrobat), and by Alvin's tomboy younger sister Daphne, also known as 'the Pest'. One of the virtues of Hicks's wonderful novel is that, although it's told from a boy's viewpoint, he avoids the obvious "girls are icky" stereotype. At several points in the book, Daphne is smarter or more resourceful than her brother.
'The Whiz Kid and the Mystery at Riverton' is a very poor adaptation of Hicks's very fine novel. One of young Alvin's friends is his neighbour Miss Pinkney, the spinster recluse whose great pleasure is feeding the birds in her garden. But Miss Pinkney hasn't fed the birds lately: in fact, Alvin hasn't seen her recently at all. And who are those mean-looking men who have moved into Miss Pinkney's house? Naturally, Alvin and his cohorts decide to investigate. But this case calls for some of Alvin's crime-solving gizmos...
The original novel was suspenseful and funny (with Alvin and his buddies genuinely in danger from the villains), and it encouraged young readers to cultivate some genuine interest in science. This TV adaptation is a tremendous letdown. The spooky-house plot has the feel of a Scooby-Doo episode without the supernatural trimmings. This TV movie places too much emphasis on slapstick at the expense of the other story elements. Most of the cast provide limp performances, and the three child actors in the lead roles are disastrous. Veteran character actors John Fiedler, Edward Andrews and George O'Hanlon are ingratiating in brief roles. Rae Dawn Chong is quite attractive here, and she gives a good performance. The direction, by somebody I've never heard of, is truly wretched. This being a Disney TV movie, the production values and musical scoring are (as usual for Disney) excellent.
Clifford B. Hicks's original novel about Alvin Fernald and his sister and Shoey produced a couple of sequel novels which were very good in themselves. This TV movie also led to a couple of sequels, but they went steadily downhill. I'll rate this TV production 2 points out of 10. Try to locate the original Clifford B. Hicks novels, and give them to your kids instead of this TV movie.
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