Nancy Drew Is Back … On the Silver Screen

Go get your flashlight—there's a mystery we need to solve. Nancy Drew, girl sleuth, who vanished from movie theaters nearly 70 years ago, suddenly reappears this week. Where has she been? And can the teenager time forgot appeal to a generation obsessed with the Pussycat Dolls? Let's get to the bottom of this.

Before the new "Nancy Drew" movie, the 16-year-old crimefighter had last hit the silver screen in 1939. Back then, the Stratemeyer Syndicate's series of novels (by the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene) was just nine years old. Now, nearly 200 books later, the Nancy of the novels has traded the blue roadster for a hybrid, and she's been one of Simon & Schuster's most bankable brands since 1979, when it bought the rights from Stratemeyer. Apparently that didn't impress the movie industry, which has co-opted just about every other boomer-era character, from Inspector Gadget to the Brady Bunch. In Hollywood, Nancy Drew couldn't get, as they say, arrested.

Nancy did have a short-lived '70s TV series and a couple of never-should-have-been-made-for-TV movies, productions that Drew purists will never forgive. "It's really a downward spiral," wrote Sam Tweedle on "It goes from great, to good, to bad, to retarded, in a 65-year period." Hollywood seems at a loss when portraying any smart female teen—let alone one as iconic as Nancy Drew. "I think they hesitate before putting a strong female in the lead because they wonder, 'Is this going to make money in the same ways that a male character might?' " says Miami University's Sherrie A. Inness, author of "Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series." "But even in a world filled with Paris and Britney, I still think there's room for Nancy Drew. There is that cultural need for girls who succeed where boys and men can't."

In "Nancy Drew," director Andrew Fleming keeps Nancy smart, resourceful and fully clothed. The premise: Nancy (Emma Roberts) and her father, Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), leave their bucolic hometown—River Heights, of course—and head for L.A. to investigate a onetime starlet's death. Nancy's ditched the hybrid and is back in a retro-cool 1959 blue roadster. She also wears outfits cut from vintage Butterick patterns. Yet she does Internet research, listens to Flunk on her iPod and attends ultrahip Hollywood High.

Naturally, Nancy remains unaffected by the L.A. teens' fast-paced lives, their vapid culture—or their jeers at her overachievement. "She's OK with being herself," says Roberts, also 16 (and Julia's niece). "In a lot of movies that's the theme, yet by the end the character becomes completely different in order to fit in. Not Nancy." Roberts's Nancy does get rattled by the presence of her old sort-of-maybe boyfriend, Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot), but keeps her integrity around such new peers as the precocious, annoying Corky (Josh Flitter) and two catty female classmates straight outta "Clueless."

These shoehorned-in characters are the only real nod toward today's preteen movies. No adult in-jokes, no gross-out humor, no deafening explosions: this is a classic family film. "Everything is not MTV, and does not have to be fast and flashy," says producer Jerry Weintraub. "Nancy's not gonna drink half a bottle of vodka, smoke a joint and crash her father's car into a pole. She's good, and I think there are other kids out there like that. Is that too optimistic?" (Are you listening, Ms. Lohan?)

Not when you consider that Nancy hit The New York Times's best-seller list when Simon & Schuster relaunched the novels in 2004. And the movie can only attract more young readers. The tie-ins—a coloring book, a novelization—are ready to roll. Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller and Twentieth Century Fox are tossing around the idea of another Stratemeyer-based film: "The Hardy Men," which would follow Nancy's boy coevals into adulthood. Is it too early to start pitching "Nancy Drew 2"? Look for clues when we get this weekend's box-office figures.