When Steven Spielberg brought Alice Walker's raw Southern novel The Color Purple to the big screen in 1985, critics chastised him for buffing away the edges; the New York Times' Janet Maslin griped, "If the book is set in the harsh, impoverished atmosphere of rural Georgia, the movie unfolds in a cozy, comfortable, flower-filled wonderland." Sue Monk Kidd's dreamy 2002 bestseller The Secret Life Of Bees has considerably less darkness on tap than Walker's novel, but even so, the film version recalls The Color Purple both in plot particulars and in the way it moves the action to that flower-filled wonderland. It's unabashedly soft and sentimental, in its soft-pedaled tragedies as well as its uplift.
Child-star-turned-tween-star Dakota Fanning gives a mostly credible performance as a 14-year-old girl growing up in South Carolina circa 1964. The Civil Rights Act has rendered the fat, white natives restless enough to assault Fanning's black housekeeper (Dreamgirls Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson) when she tries to register to vote. So Fanning spirits Hudson out of police custody and they hit the road together like a gender-switched Huck and Jim. Hudson is escaping prosecution; Fanning is escaping abusive, possessive dad Paul Bettany, and searching for a connection to the mother she accidentally shot to death. The travelers wind up in the care of three black sisters—endlessly wise earth mother Queen Latifah, suspicious Alicia Keys, and sweet but addled Sophie Okonedo—in a corner of the South where racism keeps its distance, possibly thanks to the sisters' successful, respected beekeeping business. There, Fanning faces her fears that her mother never loved her.
Kidd's novel had a heavy dose of sweet whimsy, and the film cranks that up, but it isn't cloying so much as toothless: In its '60s idyll, sadness proves more dangerous than stirred-up segregationists, and other racial elements—like Fanning's discomfort over how her skin color excludes her from the bonding between the sisters and Hudson—barely get a mention. The film floats along on its own sunny breezes: It's pleasant and often touching, and the well-chosen cast sells what little drama they get, but there's no depth and little affect, and every would-be conflict peters out noncommittally. In spite of its critical rep, The Color Purple did have moments of bloodcurdling terror that made its victories feel hard-won and viciously triumphant. Secret Life Of Bees has all its victories tepidly handed over on a plate, presided over by Latifah's generous, approving smile.