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Ever wish you lived in a simpler time? Perhaps a time when days moved slower and traditional moral values were taught and upheld as commonly as a 21st century teen uses a cell phone. Summer Magic offers the chance to visit such a time and place, telling the story of a family that leaves the bustling city life of Ragtime Boston to embrace a simple life in the country. In classic Disney fashion, this almost-musical is intentionally light, uplifting, and packaged to appeal to all ages. But underneath the bright surface of this tale lie some unexpected layers of valuable lessons and a charming performance from one of the most naturally gifted actors in cinema.
Though living in an era we would likely consider less complicated than our own, teenager Nancy Carey isn’t much different than most of us. She, too, longs for a simpler life. Nancy and her two younger brothers have just lost their father to illness, and his death, combined with failed investments, results in financial ruin for this family that was accustomed to living well.
Fearing her mother’s plan that they stay in Boston and move into a “horrible little house,” Nancy takes it upon herself to seek an alternative. With the intrepid leadership and take-action attitude that drives Nancy, and thereby her family, throughout this film, Nancy writes the postmaster of Beulah, a small rural town in Maine, to ask about the availability of a house that the Carey family had fallen in love with while vacationing there years before. Her request is a long shot, but she hopes that the owner of the house might rent it to the Carey family, allowing them to stay there and live off the land, raising their own chickens and growing their own food.
Unfortunately, Nancy embellishes her letter with several “white lies” in order to make her family’s situation seem even more pitiable to the postmaster, Osh Popham. It is this tendency to practice such little stretches and twists to the truth that offers one of the few problems to families watching this film. Both Nancy and Osh, an older teen and adult who should both know better, excuse their small deceptions as harmless and even as a way to keep things “interesting.” Their lies, as with all deceptions, do get them into trouble, but the film fails to deliver any irreversible or serious consequences that would better communicate the importance of being truthful.
Nevertheless, this problematic element, which can be easily addressed by parents watching with kids, is more than made up for by the positive content of Summer Magic. Woven throughout the events of the story are several positive themes, one of which is a study in pessimism verses positive thinking. The Careys demonstrate an unusual commitment to facing difficulties and even tragedies with a positive attitude. They are not, however, without their faltering moments. In particular, Nancy and her closest brother face one of their most challenging obstacles in the form of Julia Carey, their spoiled and self-centered cousin who suddenly must come to stay with them.
But thanks to Julia’s arrival, Summer Magic is able to explore some additional topics, as well. Through Julia’s trying presence, Nancy, especially, is challenged to grow and mature, as she struggles with how to treat her difficult cousin. There are times when Nancy takes the wrong path in her relationship with Julia, but these moments are nicely handled in the story and result in clear growth for Nancy’s character. Children and adults alike can relate to and learn a great deal from Nancy’s struggle to accept things that are out of her control and to live with someone who makes daily life a trial. Yet, ultimately, it is Julia who forces Nancy to strive for much more than her otherwise simplistic commitment to positive thinking and Julia who unintentionally teaches Nancy invaluable lessons about love, empathy, and forgiveness.
Along the way, Nancy spreads much joy to her family and friends just by being her friendly and vivacious self. She’s an inspiring example to young women and girls, in particular, as she is contrasted with Julia, who excessively primps and fakes a simpering, demure persona for young men she meets. Nancy never tries to hide her true personality to fit the stereotypical “femininity” that Julia claims is what men want. On this issue, the filmmakers amusingly indulge in some clever tongue-in-cheek, as Nancy sings a song to a younger girl that encourages her to “beguile” and “hide the real” her if she wants to “catch a beau.” Nancy herself, however, doesn’t follow this advice, and becomes the film’s ultimate endorsement for the importance of a woman being loved for who she is, not who society may pressure her to be.
This message and the other values demonstrated through Nancy carry more weight than they might have if Hayley Mills were not the actor in this lead role. Mills has an unmatched ability to play every moment of her roles with unadulterated truth. In Mills’ case, the word “authenticity” doesn’t go far enough to express the utter genuineness with which she embodies the characters she plays, even in her earliest roles as a child actor. As a result, she gives even more simplistic characters than Nancy a layered reality that renders them unquestionably believable and irresistibly relatable. Mills’ portrayal of Nancy is no different, as she makes Nancy a spunky and fun, but flawed, real young woman who is a joy to watch and root for.
Summer Magic features other solid performances, with Dorothy McGuire as the other cast member worthy of note. A veteran of the silver screen, McGuire turns in a strong showing as Nancy’s mother Margaret, but her character doesn’t allow for anything remarkable, since the role is limited in scope and screen time. The remaining prominent roles are played well enough to carry the story, and even Burl Ives, a non-actor musician, is surprisingly (though imperfectly) convincing as postmaster and shop owner Osh Popham.
Ives is likely in Summer Magic because the film is peppered with several songs that he and other actors sing in musical film fashion. More successfully than in some musicals, most of the songs are interwoven with the story and help to develop characters and/or further the action. In addition, the ratio of songs to action is not as high as usual for movies of the musical genre. The songs are catchy and well-done, adding a fun element that will especially appeal to younger viewers.
For parents watching with their children, there’s one other potentially problematic moment that should be mentioned. [MINOR SPOILER WARNING] Stemming from the other fault of excusing “little” deceptions, this content comes when Osh is looking for a painting of a woman to back up one of his fibs. He peruses through some old paintings he has at his store, and among them are two of suggestively and scantily clad women. This scene is quite odd, really, in that it doesn’t fit the rest of the film’s squeaky-clean content. However, the scene is brief, and Osh does not ogle the women in the pictures. When his wife enters the room, she is shocked that he’s looking at such pictures on “the Sabbath,” but he actually does nothing wrong with the images, and his wife redirects the focus to an innocuous painting.
Again, the uplifting messages in the rest of Summer Magic do more than enough to make up for this brief lapse. In addition, Christian parents need not be concerned with the suggestion of magic in the film’s title, as there are no magical or fantasy elements to the story at all. Rather, Summer Magic is an entertaining, coming-of-age story about a special summer filled with lessons on family, love, fortitude, and even a touch of romance. The “magic” here is that you can watch this movie with your whole family, and you’ll all come away with good thoughts on your minds and smiles on your faces.
Check out these similar titles:
Pollyanna (Walt Disney, 1960)
The Moon-Spinners (Walt Disney, 1964)
Swiss Family Robinson (Walt Disney, 1960)