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Awesome: 6.06%
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4 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Spiderwick Chronicles, The
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by Eugene Novikov

"Gets lost in its own fantasy universe"
3 stars

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES opens beautifully and then gets distracted -- or maybe not distracted so much as preoccupied with a fantasy plot that's at best undistinguished and at worst tiresome. Of course, protesting about the fantasy focus of a fantasy film is a bit bizarre, not to mention futile. But in plunging into its largely generic world of goblins, faeries, magical books, and evil ogres named Mulgrath, the movie -- which is about kids and mostly for kids -- takes its eye off the ball. After lovingly setting up the intricate relationships among its characters -- preteen twin brothers (both played by Freddie Highmore) and an older sister (Sarah Bolger) who move to a country house to live with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) following a divorce -- Spiderwick loses itself in the action and pretty special effects, only recovering in time to do a rushed, pat wrap-up.

According to the credits, John Sayles -- an independent writer-director known for movies that are slow, personal and wise -- had a hand in the screenplay. I wouldn't have guessed it, but if his influence is detectable anywhere, it is in the lovely, deliberate opening scenes. After an intriguingly abstract pre-credits sequence, The Spiderwick Chronicles lets us spend some quality time with its characters, only dropping occasional hints of the fantastic. What struck me was the precision with which their personalities and histories are drawn: the siblings' bickering conceals a familiar mixture of love and resentment; their wisecracks and sarcasm seem like the repartee of three smart kids rather than three too-clever screenwriters; the wounds of their parents' divorce are taken seriously. Really good children's fantasy is invariably rooted in the sorts of real-life fears and insecurities that the first third of The Spiderwick Chronicles handled so adroitly. I hoped for the best.

The first warning sign was the appearance of Thimbletack, an irritable little CGI beastie voiced by Martin Short. In an adorable touch, the creature -- charged with protecting a book that contains all the secrets of the magical world that surrounds our heroes unbeknownst to them -- gets increasingly angry and malevolent until it is fed honey; hence all the bottles of the stuff they find in the house. But as the thing kept jabbering on about the Book! the Book! the urgency started to drain from the film. I worried that its fantasy elements would be too cute by half, too frivolous to do justice to the promising set-up.

I was able to roll with the lighthearted tone for a while, especially since The Spiderwick Chronicles continued to show a willingness to engage with darker material, at least intermittently. Nick Nolte shows up in ragged, creepy-old-man human form as the villain who will rain death upon the world if he gets his hands on the Book. Personal demons left over from the divorce keep rearing their heads, culminating in a startling scene involving what may or may not be the kids' father. And the goblins that besiege the house are, in their way, kind of scary.

The ratio of memorable to generic steadily declined, however. Soon after his initial appearance, Mulgrath drops Nick Nolte's hobo haircut and haggard face in favor of an unremarkable Nolte-voiced special effect. David Strathairn puts in an appearance as crazy old Uncle Spiderwick, but the film's explanation of why the centuries-old man is still alive and dispensing advice is feverishly contrived, a side effect of trying to adapt a five-book series into a 90-minute screenplay. The fantasy world turns out to be a hodgepodge of genre staples without a coherent vision to bind them. Meanwhile, the tenderness and patience of the first act is ditched entirely, with all of the character conflicts resolved in an abrupt, syrupy, unconvincing happy ending.

There's good stuff here. It's fun to watch Freddie Highmore, a talked-up child actor starting to deliver on the hype, slip effortlessly into dual roles. Parts of the film are uncommonly thoughtful. Shame that, in the end, it prefers the pretty and the busy over its -- or at least John Sayles's -- bread and butter.

(Reprinted from Filmblather.com)

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16807&reviewer=419
originally posted: 02/14/08 02:04:24
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User Comments

1/12/09 Anonymous. an actual non-cute family film..wow. :D 4 stars
4/28/08 Dad another anti-dad hollyweird divorce FU hllywd 3 stars
4/22/08 Jodi I really enjoyed this one. Great family film 5 stars
3/13/08 Lys B. It really is a great family movie, and it's something I'd definitely watch again. 4 stars
3/02/08 Nicholas Plowman I was so over joyed when I heard this film was made, but it was dissapointing 2 stars
2/29/08 Tiffany Losco Cute movie loved it 5 stars
2/17/08 cdmtx Great Family Movie ! 4 stars
2/17/08 ceredo would like to see this soon - is it really too scary for children? 4 stars
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  14-Feb-2008 (PG)
  DVD: 24-Jun-2008



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