THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
Spiderwick, Spiderwick, does whatever a Spiderwick does...
“And what exactly might that be?” I hear you inquire.
In short: Entertain. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, aside from its blatant CG, is a charming throwback to all those Spielberg-produced kid movies of the '80s. Its kids feel real, there's danger but not too much. And just enough sentiment to make you feel, but not so much you'll feel manipulated.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is that it features Martin Short voicing a computer-generated character who somehow manages not to be annoying, and a better-than-adequate dual performance by the previously insufferable English kid Freddie Highmore (of undeserved FINDING NEVERLAND acclaim) as identical American twins, moody Jared Grace and his nerdy bro Simon. Their older sister Mallory is played by Irish actress Sarah Bolger (IN AMERICA), who also pulls off the American thing believably. (How come we're letting all these aliens steal work from American child actors, huh? Oh, right, American child actors tend to be unbearably cutesy.)
Jared, Simon, and Mallory are children of divorce, packed up along with mom (Mary-Louise Parker) to a large, decaying country house owned by their family (because of course no-one would have dreamed of actually selling such real estate). There's a small town nearby, but even though it's small, it also has a huge “sanitorium” -- given the context in the movie, it should actually be a sanitarium, for the delusional, rather than sanitorium, for the chronically sick. Regardless, it's for crazy people in this context, and the fact that it's so big in a town so small should be a huge red flag.
It's probably worth mentioning at this point that the movie opens with David Strathairn, of all the people to find in such a movie (John Sayles did some work on the script, so that explains that), working in a room full of skulls and things in jars, making overly startled expressions. It seems he is Mr. Spiderwick, and he has discovered all sorts of invisible magical creatures living in the surrounding countryside. Impressed, he compiled everything he learned about them into a book, which then becomes a dangerous possession, because a Nick Nolte-voiced ogre named Mulgarath want the knowledge contained therein in order to rule the world. Why Mulgarath can't simply obtain the knowledge by himself isn't clear – you figure he could torture a fairy or two, and they'd give up the goods. I mean, c'mon, if David Strathairn can find out, don't you think Nick Nolte could? Especially since he can shape shift to look like other people, presumably including Strathairn. Maybe he's just a lazy bastard, trying to do the fantasy equivalent of illegal downloading.
Point being, he shouldn't have the book. So Spiderwick has hidden the book in the house, with a seal on it and a warning not to open it, because apparently doing so is like slipping on the One Ring, and alerts the Dark Lord. Just one problem – he left the book in the care of a bumbling brownie named Thimbletack (Short, as a hybrid of both man and mouse with the powers of a miniature Incredible Hulk that can only be cured by drinking honey...seriously) who makes loud noises and causes the kids to investigate and find the book. Once it's open, the goblins in the woods start coming out in droves, as does Nolte, briefly in DUI-scuzzy human form and then as...various other things. Joan Plowright's in the movie too, but to describe her role is a potential spoiler, so I won't.
SPIDERWICK's great charm is that it feels exactly like the kind of adventure story you might have imagined at the bottom of the garden one day during childhood. It doesn't so much create a whole new fantasy world as little fantastic pockets within our own – what if dandelion seeds really were sentient, singing beings? Can flowers fly when we're not looking? Why do our odd socks go missing?
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Unfortunately, its great drawback for many will be the fact that all of the fantasy characters are very obviously CG – this isn't the seamless kind of critter you'd see in a JURASSIC PARK movie; in fact, many of these creatures seem less tangible than Alvin and the Chipmunks. I'm not necessarily 100% opposed to this, because after all, Harryhausen films are still appealing despite the obvious creaks in the effects, and I don't think there's any less love in the creation of these goblins, but the frequent similarities with LABYRINTH do make one imagine what the Henson company could have done with basic puppetry, probably saving a ton of money. Given all this, it's strange that the compositing of Highmore into scenes with himself as a twin are seamless – how can digital trickery be so good at one thing and so...not bad, exactly, but, well, subpar at others?
A possible theory is that the magical characters aren't supposed to be real – and thus don't look it -- but are, rather, the imagined constructs used by the kids to deal with their parents' divorce – the metaphorical parallels are indeed made, but I don't think you can make the case that in the film, the goblins aren't real, especially since the ending features an intrusion that indisputably affects this world beyond what the kids believe (there are other questions about this specific event, but we can discuss those after you've seen the film, if you like).
I haven't read the books, so I can't say what the level of fealty is, but I suspect the kids are going to love it, and the adults, if not engulfed by an anti-CG huff, may feel like kids again. Surprisingly for a Nickelodeon movie, this doesn't pander. And for director Mark Waters, best known thus far as the director of Lindsay Lohan comedies (which perhaps prepared him to step up to Nolte?), this is as significant an expansion of his ouevre as ZATHURA was for Jon Favreau.
Yeah, you probably didn't see ZATHURA. But it was really cool. Hope this does better.