Spiderwick Chronicles, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Thus far, the formula has worked almost flawlessly: combine fantasy with a family friendly approach and the recent result has caused studio heads to smile. The Spiderwick Chronicles is the latest in what could be considered "starter" fantasy tales. The set of five books, written by Tony DiTerrlizzi and Holly Black, falls into the same category with respected offerings like C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, and (of course) J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's/Philsopher's Stone. It's no coincidence that all of these have been filmed in one way or another (The Chronicles of Prydain as Disney's animated The Black Cauldron and The Hobbit thus far as a Rankin-Bass cartoon). The Spiderwick Chronicles is arguably geared for a slightly younger crowd than the other stories but it stands up well to cinematic conversion. The finished product will enthrall the target audience without boring those who chaperone them to theaters.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is in no sense of the word "adult" or "mature," so more sophisticated fantasy lovers may be a little disappointed by what it offers. There are some popular monsters - goblins, hobgoblins, trolls, and an ogre - but they more resemble deformed reptiles than their D&D counterparts. (Oddly, the goblins look similar to the Rankin-Bass interpretations of those creatures in The Hobbit.) There are no wizards but there are plenty of fairies and all fairies use magic. To humanize the characters, there's a broken home with all the attendant bitterness that children feel for separating parents. There's not much of a moral here, though, unless one considers it a lesson that, when moving into an old house, one should not rummage around in locked chests hidden away in normally inaccessible attics.

After leaving her husband, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) has taken her three children - Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddy Highmore) - and left New York City for a fresh start. Their destination: the old Spiderwick Estate - a decrepit mansion Helen inherited from her dotty old aunt, Lucinda (Joan Plowright). The Spiderwick Estate has a secret, however: 80 years ago, explorer Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) wrote a Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You and, in doing so, unleashed some terrible forces. Now, an army of goblins led by the demonic ogre Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) is massing to take the book away from its place of protection and only the Grace children stand in the way of Mulgrath's domination of this world and many others. In order to succeed in the upcoming battle, they must locate the long-missing Arthur and convince their mother they're not deluded.

Unlike several other notable fantasy adaptations, this one squeezes the entire five-book series into a single movie so we're not left waiting and wondering how things will turn out. The task isn't as daunting as one might expect, and the three screenwriters (one of whom is John Sayles) understand what can go and what has to stay. The Spiderwick Chronicles books are all short with large print and many illustrations. Cuts were necessary to reduce 500 pages into 90 minutes but the overall production is surprisingly faithful to its source material, although the tacked-on happy epilogue, which is not the same as the one that concludes Book 5, reeks of studio interference. Viewers, like their reader counterparts, deserve a little more credit.

As has been true of a lot of movies lately, the first half is stronger than the second one. There's something magical about the fairy/monster world slowly being unveiled to Jared, when the goblins are only nightmarish creatures glimpsed through a glass lens. Later, we see them massing in all their glory. This results in a lot of running around. Much of The Spiderwick Chronicles' latter sections are devoted to CGI-heavy chase sequences. This is fine as far as it goes, and they are expertly directed by Mark Waters, but they can't escape a generic feel. And did anyone else notice James Horner's overt cannibalization of his score from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? It's always distracting to hear music from another movie out of context.

Few reviews of The Spiderwick Chronicles are going to single out acting. For the most part, that's sensible. Nick Nolte is hidden under layers of make-up (and later turned CGI). The kids are adequate but not memorable. And the voice work by Martin Short (as Thimbletack) and Seth Rogan (Hogaqueal) is unremarkable. However, Mary-Louise Parker is sympathetic and credible as a woman who is trying to keep her family together even though she has reached the breaking point. Her son hates her for taking him away from his father and she won't crush his spirit by revealing the truth to him. It's a touching and entirely human performance - the kind of we rarely expect (or get) in films of this genre.

The Spiderwick Chronicles books are recommended for ages 7 and up and that seems a reasonable range for the movies. There are some scary moments but they're not that scary and the violence is muted by the ways in which it is shot and presented. The Spiderwick Chronicles is not great fantasy, but it's on more solid ground than The Golden Compass and will seem less baffling to some. There's enough here to keep adults engaged, which is an important component of any motion picture that wants to be known as "family entertainment." I would place The Spiderwick Chronicles comfortably in that category.

Spiderwick Chronicles, The (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-14
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1