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Spiderwick Chronicles, The (2008)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Thursday, 14 February 2008

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Film Rating:
4.0
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Even though “The Spiderwick Chronicles” appears from its trailers to be another attempt to tap into the “Lord of the Rings” and Harry Potter audiences, it’s very much its own thing, a tidy, compact fantasy adventure that touches all the right bases from beginning to end. The dialogue isn’t quite as funny as was apparently intended, but the characters, real and fantastical, are lively and appealing. It even touches lightly on real world issues, and doesn’t offer typical Hollywood-happy-ending solutions to them. It’s truly a family film—adults are as likely to enjoy it as much as children, and for the same reasons.

The movie is based on a series of children’s books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. Presumably Paramount hopes to launch a series of Spiderwick movies, but this film seems to include plot elements from several of the books—so where can they go from here?

After a brief opening scene set 80 years ago, we see naturalist Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) studying the world and the Unseen World, gathering all his knowledge into a scrapbook he labels “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Unseen World Around You.” But something happens and he disappears, leaving behind only a young daughter, Lucinda. She claimed she could see fairies and the like, and was placed in a mental home.

Now, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), Spiderwick’s great-grand-niece, arrives at the decrepit, lonely old Spiderwick Mansion with her children, teenage Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both played by reliable Freddie Highmore). Jared’s sullen and angry; he’s resentful about having to leave their comfortable home back in New York city and come all the way out to this rundown place that looks like it was designed by Charles Addams.

He’s outgoing, intense and tends to sudden rages. His brother Simon is quiet—“I don’t do conflict”—and much more nerdy than Jared. When he states something logically, Mallory mutters, “Thanks, Spock; you’re the pride of the Federation.” Highmore is completely convincing as the twins, helped by subtle, unobtrusive special effects—but the young actor makes most of the distinctions between the brothers through his acting skill.

Mallory likes both her brothers, but has her own interest—fencing. We rarely see her without a foil in her hand. She’s frequently at odds with Jared, who’s expecting his father to arrive any day now. We understand well before Jared does that this isn’t going to happen—unknown to the boy (but known to Mallory), their parents are going through a divorce. Helen has courageously moved to the only property she has any claim on, the Spiderwick mansion, and hopes to start her life afresh.

The kitchen is puzzling. There are dozens of plastic bear honey dispensers, dozens of boxes of oatmeal, dozens of jars of tomato sauce—is this stuff all Lucinda ate? And what are those strange scratching sounds from inside the kitchen walls? And what about that neat, unbroken ring of toadstools that surrounds the house?

Jared sullenly pokes holes in the wall with broom handle, and is scolded by Mallory—who herself fractures the wall, revealing odd bits of their own belongings that went missing almost as soon as they arrived. And they’re in a dumb waiter. When his siblings leave, Jared immediately climbs into the dumb waiter and hauls himself up into darkness.

He finds himself in a dusty old room, Spiderwick’s laboratory—and finds Spiderwick’s notebook, ignoring the note that reads “Jared Grace, leave this place.” Weird things happen that night—Mallory’s hair is tied to her bedframe—while Jared pores over the notebook. He learns that brownies love honey. So the next day in the old lab, he coats crackers with honey, and soon is talking to Thimbletack (Martin Short), a rat-like little guy in lederhosen and a tendency to talk in rhyme. But don’t get him angry, the notebook warns—when he gets mad, Thimbletack hulks out: turns green, gets bigger, and very cranky. But he calms down quickly; he has allowed Jared to see him, but if the boy will look through the stone ring the brownie gives him, he can see the denizens of the unseen world all around him.

He warns Jared about the book—Spiderwick’s research was so thorough that he included enough information about the fairies, sylphs, hobgoblins, regular goblins, griffins, etc. of the unseen world, that should the book fall into the wrong hands—those of the ogre Mulgarath in particular—the evil creature could take over not only the unseen world, but the entire planet. He’s already in control of the evil denizens of the unseen world.

Everything is now set up and the movie takes off. That ring of mushrooms keeps the toad-like goblins that live in the nearby woods away from the house, but Simon innocently crosses the ring—he can’t see the goblins—and they carry him off. Jared has to save him. He quickly meets Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), a friendly hobgoblin—not to be confused with a goblin—who’s helpful but cowardly, and tends to be distracted by passing birds, which he likes to eat.

In the forest, Jared watches Simon confronted by what seems to be an old man (Nick Nolte, for crying out loud), but who is really, Hogsqueal explains, that ogre Mulgarath, who can change his shape. He killed all of Hogsqueal’s family years before, and the little guy (who has four nostrils) wants revenge. He’s just too chicken to get it.

No point in relating the plot further, although I should mention that hobgoblin saliva, when spit into human’s eyes, gives them the power to see the unseen world. Of course this happens several times. Eventually, the three children team up to try to keep the goblins and Mulgarath from getting their hands on the Spiderwick book. This involves battles, a handsome griffin, a flight to a snowy waste, a meeting with Spiderwick himself, and an encounter with his now-elderly daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright).

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a very busy movie with plenty of characters and a noisy, exciting climax, but it also takes place in a relatively small area (aside from that flight by griffin-back to lands far away). These are just regular children, clever, inventive and brave though they are, who have to fight these forces of weirdness. The limited area gives the action a tight focus, filling the last half of the film with energy and excitement.

The plentiful special effects—there are also flower-like fairies and dandelion-fluff-like sylphs—were done by the Tippett Studio and ILM, formidable forces in the field. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice this is a Kennedy-Marshall production; though the names of Frank Marshall and his wife Kathleen Kennedy aren’t visible in the credits, it’s very reassuring to know they’re around. They’ve been involved with many of the best fantasy and science fiction movies of the last 30 years.

Mark Waters was an unusual choice for director; mostly, he’s done teen-oriented comedies like the remake of “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls.” But he’s fine, here. His simple, straightforward style is just what an eventful movie like this one requires. He keeps everything in focused, and clearly works well with the actors, all of whom are very good. British Highmore, the star of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” not only distinguishes between the brothers skillfully, but manages a perfect American accent. So does Sarah Bolger, herself once an exceptional child actor (as in “In America,” where she was the lead).

The script by divers hands—Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run,” among many others), David Berenbaum (“Elf,” most notably) and, unexpectedly, John Sayles (director, fine writer for more than 20 years)—is crisp and uncluttered. There’s no sibling rivalry grafted onto the story; it doesn’t need it. These siblings are different from one another, they have their own issues, but they are quick to stick up for each other. The failing marriage of their mother is a back issue, though present throughout, but the writers don’t resort to the usual sort of thing to wrap up the story. The characters are well written, the adventures are to the point and direct.

The tempo is well-paced; it slows down for explanations, speeds up for action, and there’s a lot of it. The book is safe inside the circle of toadstoos, so at the end, there’s a siege on the old house by hordes of goblins and Mulgarath himself. Yes, we finally do learn what the tomato sauce is for. When it’s finally put to vivid use, it’s in an amusingly gruesome scene, the only one in the movie.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” looks very good—the CGI effects are perfectly integrated into the live-action scenes, the cinematography is handsome (and low-key). This is being released both in regular theaters and in IMAX outlets, and will probably look sensational in that giant format. It’s great fun with engaging characters, an involving story and an exciting climax. It doesn’t get as serious as the Harry Potter movies, nor, of course, “The Lord of the Rings” adventures; it’s a smaller-scale story, with a few human characters battling magical forces on a small playing field. But it’s a charmer on its own merits.







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