Spiderwick Chronicles, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/28/08 14:01:08
(Worth A Look)
There are goblins and fairies and trolls galore in “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the latest attempt by Hollywood to recapture the kid-lit box office magic spun by Harry Potter. But it’s tough to get cynical about the motivations for bringing such a delightful story to life when the movie is brimming with such wonder and excitement as this.Adapted from the series of children’s novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, “Spiderwick” has a familiar premise: a family moves into a creepy old house in the middle of nowhere, only to discover the enchanted world around it. And really, what kid wouldn’t want to live in a giant, dusty mansion filled with hidden rooms and magical discoveries?
Not Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore), that’s what kid. He’s still brooding over his parents’ divorce, and he’s not happy having to leave his dad behind to live with his mother (Mary-Louise Parker), older sister (Sarah Bolger), and bookish twin brother (Highmore again, and watch how the young actor takes this bit of double casting beyond cheap gimmickry, finding the honesty behind both characters). But then he hears something in the walls, and when he gives a little knock, the something in the walls knocks back.
This leads him to discover the hidden room, and a hidden book: a field guide written by his great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), detailing the many wonders of a world kept invisible to us mere humans. Eighty years ago, Spiderwick slowly gained the trust of this world’s kinder souls, and he began to catalogue all the secrets of their world. But then the villainous, shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) learned of the book, and he’s spent the past eight decades trying to find it; if he does, and if he learns all the tricks of the fairies and sprites who too often defeat him, he’ll become so powerful that not even humans will be able to stop him.
“Spiderwick” brings all those old fairy tale standbys into a new, deliciously original story. Credit of course goes to DiTerlizzi and Black, but also to screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run,” “Charlotte’s Web”), David Berenbaum (“Elf,” “The Haunted Mansion”), and John Sayles (yes, that John Sayles), who managed to cram several of the original books into a single, 97-minute adventure without leaving the picture feeling cramped or rushed. Everything’s on screen that needs to be, and nothing seems left out.
A good reason for this is that the writers always show an appreciation for the intelligence of younger viewers. Here is a movie that trusts its audience. When our young heroes are taken off to a mysterious realm where time seems to have stood still for infinity, the script offers only the slightest of explanations, knowing that kids can fill in the gaps themselves. And when Mulgarath and his army of goblins finally attack the house, the film presents the action at a breakneck pace, knowing that we’re perfectly fine keeping up on our own; one key moment late in the film has Jared making a split decision, and although the film asks how he knew to strike, it never answers, safe in the assumption that we can figure it out for ourselves.
(There’s been some talk that all of this leads to a film that’s too intense for children. This is hogwash. I saw this in a theater packed with kids, my seven-year-old daughter among them, and all of youngsters thrilled to the action, appreciating the sincerity behind the more troublesome sequences, laughing at the more cartoonishly violent gross-out bits - goblins turn to green goo several times in this picture - and bravely wowing to the scariest of scenes.)
Yet for all its high adventure, “Spiderwick” shines brightest in its slower, quieter scenes. There’s a lovely moment where the kids go to find their aunt, who was put in an institution years ago for babbling about fairies and goblins. Joan Plowright plays the aunt, and she does so with such a warm, cozy grace that she steals the picture right out from under her younger costars’ feet.
Indeed, this is an exquisite cast all around. A lesser group of performers would have simply gone through the motions of the action, but these players take the time to find the character moments that lurk in between.
And they inhabit a lovely picture, one of those fantasy movies where each frame is cluttered with marvelous imagery. (Five people were credited under art direction, and four more for set direction.) Movie buffs may recognize some dependable names in the credits: cinematography by Caleb Deschanel; editing by Michael Kahn; music from James Horner. The director, Mark Waters, is the film’s wild card; his resume includes such varied works as “Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday,” and “Just Like Heaven,” and here, finally, he has made a movie worth seeing twice. Unlike his previous works, his touch this time around is delicate, letting the material float along on its own.“Spiderwick” may ultimately lack the grandeur of its larger-scale kids’ fantasy neighbors, and its scope may be more limited, but its more insular approach to the genre is refreshing. At its heart is a sly imagination that fascinates and thrills, and we walk away as spellbound as Arthur Spiderwick himself.
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