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Magical quality of `Fairytale' lies in charm of its young leads

OK, just to set the record straight, "Fairytale - A True Story" is not a true story. It's a highly fictionalized version of the controversial "Cottingley Fairies" mystery/debate from World War I-era England.

For those who don't know the story, in 1917 two English pre-teens claimed to have photographed pixies, setting off a debate between journalists, photographic experts and even author and would-be spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.Eventually, the photos were debunked, though in some circles the debate rages on. But this new family fantasy never fails to let you know which side it falls on. Here, the fairies are shown to be real creatures. (Let's be honest, a more factual version would probably be slow going).

But in reality, the most magical quality of "Fairytale" isn't its portrayal of mystical beings, it's the charming performances of young leads Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl, as well as the fact that the film is one of few - if not the only - clean PG-rated films of late.

Hoath and Earl play Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, respectively, two young cousins reunited when the latter is sent to England to stay, after her soldier father (Mel Gibson, in a brief cameo), is presumed missing overseas.

As girls that age often do, the two hit it off immediately and, while playing in a nearby stream, they spy a handful of sprites. But Elsie's father (Paul McGann) remains unconvinced about their claims, at least until the girls show him photos they've taken that seem to validate their story.

The photos also give some hope to Elsie's mother (Phoebe Nicholls), who's still mourning the loss of a son. She passes some copies to a believing "theosophist" (Bill Nighy), and eventually, they fall into the hands of Doyle (Peter O'Toole) and his more skeptical friend, magician Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel), who both come to Cottingley to investigate.

Director Charles Sturridge (TV's "Gulliver's Travels") and screenwriter Ernie Contreras wisely invest more time in the interplay between the two girls - in particular, how they cope with their losses - than their relationhip with the fairies (though as mentioned, he does show them to be real). That somewhat risky move gives the movie some needed emotional heft.

The movie also benefits from very strong supporting performances (McGann, Keitel and O'Toole, in particular, are all charming) and a more subdued approach to storytelling than you'd expect from such a wild premise.

"Fairytale - A True Story" is rated PG for some mild violence and a couple of profanities.