Movie Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles
By Matthew Huntley
March 20, 2008
Ever since Harry Potter became a multi-billion dollar film franchise, Hollywood has been racing to adapt every children's fantasy novel into a big budget extravaganza. Last year alone brought us Bridge To Terabithia, The Last Mimzy and The Golden Compass. But however redundant the genre seems to be getting, it's at least reassuring to know the studios are taking pride in these enterprises and filling them with rich detail and atmosphere, never skimping on the budget.
The latest is The Spiderwick Chronicles, from the series of novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. It contains a story that's less grand and thoughtful than Bridge To Terabithia and The Golden Compass, but it possesses a high energy and an uncommon sense of danger not often seen in family films these days. It's also more intelligent and less patronizing, which is also a good deal for parents since they're the ones buying the tickets and watching it with their kids.
Like many children's fantasies, Spiderwick begins when a family moves into a creepy old house and finds it's inhabited by magical creatures. The first to discover this is Jared (Freddie Highmore), a quick-tempered teenager upset over his parents' recent split. His twin brother Simon is a self-proclaimed pacifist and animal lover, while their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) enjoys taking charge whenever their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) isn't around.
The house once belonged to their Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright), but authorities moved her to the sanatorium when she started speaking about spirits and goblins. Jared knows he's not crazy when he notices something moving inside the walls. He takes the dumbwaiter up to the attic, where he finds his great, great Uncle Spiderwick's (David Strathairn) field guide that details all the faeries and creatures surrounding the house. Most of them are friendly and responsive, including the irritable Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a cute creature called a brownie who transforms into an ugly boggart when provoked to anger. But just give him a little honey and he calms right back down. There's also Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen), who lets his stomach do his thinking and is partial to birds.
The villain is an evil troll named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), who wants Spiderwick's book because it reveals all the secrets of the surrounding estate. Eighty years ago, Spiderwick saved his daughter, a then young Lucinda (Jordy Benattar), from goblins, but during the rescue Spiderwick was whisked away by flower sprites. He's believed to be the only one capable of destroying the book and ridding the house of evil.
We've seen similar stories before - The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Casper - so "he Spiderwick Chronicles isn't the most inspired of films, but director Mark Waters adds plenty of action and special effects to keep it moving. The movie doesn't linger and it is nice how the characters accept their bizarre situations right away without requiring tedious convincing and unnecessary explanations.
I also liked the old-fashioned sense of danger and unease the movie created. Today, the idea of putting kids in any real harm seems like it's out of the question. Studios are too afraid a PG-13 rating could cut into their potential audience.
But remember the creepiness of Pinocchio, when the badly behaved children were turned into donkeys? Or the uncertain demise of the naughty kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (by contrast, the 2005 version showed all the children leaving the factory safely). Spiderwick brings back some of that lost edge and raises the tension levels by allowing Jared, Simon and Mallory to be hurt. Kids these days are so resilient they're bound to enjoy the excitement that comes with this.
I don't foresee Hollywood giving up on children's fantasies any time soon, not when they're so profitable. Spiderwick Chronicles isn't the greatest example of the genre, but it's a good one, with its own sense of magic, fear and adventure that hold our attention, however familiar they may seem.