Spiderwick Chronicles, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/14/08 00:00:00

"Not Your Typical John Sayles/David Strathairn Collaboration"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” marks the latest attempt by Hollywood to cash in on the enormous popularity of the “Harry Potter” movies by bringing another series of kid-oriented fantasy novels to the big screen in the hopes of jump-starting another ready-made film franchise. As someone who has, by virtue of professional obligation, probably seen more films of this type than anyone who doesn’t have offspring of his own should have to sit through in a lifetime, I can’t say that I went into the screening with anything resembling glee–I still haven’t fully recovered from the experience of sitting through “The Golden Compass” a few weeks ago. That said, while the film doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre or offer viewers much of anything new–this is actually the second film in as many years, after “Arthur and the Invisibles,” in which Freddie Highmore plays a young boy who moves into a mysterious house owned by a distant relative and discovers proof of a vast world of fantasy creatures living in his backyard–it does offer a certain number of pleasures for those viewers who think that they have seen it all before, including some nice bits of humor here and there, a surprisingly serious undertone and a gleefully over-the-top finale that will no doubt delight kids and appall overly sensitive mothers all across the country.

Highmore, in a dual role, plays twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace and as the film opens, they, along with older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and harried mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) are arriving at the ramshackle house in the woods, the former home of a distant relative, where they are going to make a new start following their parents’ separation. While his siblings and mother try to make the best of the situation, the angsty Jared is petulant about the entire situation–he hates having to leave New York for the boondocks, he blames his mother for the separation and he is eagerly waiting the sure-to-be-soon moment when his dad (Andrew McCarthy) will come along to rescue him. While knocking around the house, Jared discovers a hidden room that contain a bunch of weird-looking specimens and a book bearing a note begging those who look upon to not even open the book if they know what is good for them. Inevitably, Jared ignores this warning and discovers that the tome is a sort of field guide that was written 80 years earlier by distant and long-vanished relative Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) chronicling the various mystical creatures–gnomes, faeries and the like–that surround us even though they are invisible to the naked eye and the various ways in which they can controlled.

This is all neat stuff–that is, it is neat until a rhyming elf by the name of Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) reveals himself to Jared to explain the dangers that he has unknowingly unleashed by freeing the book from its hiding place. It seems that there are an army of monsters, led by the fearsome Mulgrath (Nick Nolte), lurking in the woods and if the book ever fell into their hands, they could use its secrets to destroy everything. Before long, Mulgrath and his minions discover that Jared has found the book and surround the house–they are unable to enter owing to a protective spell put on it by Arthur decades earlier–and threaten to kill his entire family if he doesn’t turn it over. After convincing his siblings about what is going on, Jared, Simon and Mallory must try to figure out a way to reverse what has been done and get rid of the monsters before they can hurt anyone. This involves a visit to Arthur’s daughter (Joan Plowright), whose stories of her father battling monsters has landed her in a rest, some semi-helpful advice from hungry troll Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), griffin-driven trip to a faraway land where the hasn’t-aged-a-day Arthur remains in a state of permanent enchantment and an exceptionally messy final act battle between the Graces and the monsters for possession of the book.

I realize that the above may sound like standard kiddie-fantasy fodder and while it does start out along those familiar lines, it soon shifts gears and turns into something a little more quirky and off-beat. For one thing, the adventure and intrigue is on a blessedly smaller scale than the overblown likes of “The Golden Compass” or that talking dragon nightmare–instead of watching these kids defending entire kingdoms or worlds, it essentially boils down to three children trying to protect their home and family. The story also move along at a snappy pace without ever getting bogged down with endless explanations of the various creatures and the rules governing them–this is especially impressive when you consider that screenwriters Karey Krikpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles (yes, John Sayles) have taken all five of the best-selling “Spiderwick” books co-written by Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black and streamlined them into one 97-minute narrative without every creating the impression that important material has been left on the sidelines. (Of course, I say this without having actually read the books–I am sure that fans of the series will note seemingly essential elements that have been discarded.) The performances are also of a higher caliber than you usually find in films of this type–Highmore, who has demonstrated his considerable acting chops in past films like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Finding Neverland,” takes what could have been a failed bit of stunt casting and creates two highly distinctive characterizations for his work as Jared and Simon. In smaller human roles, Sarah Bolger is fun and feisty as the sister, Mary-Louise Parker is appropriately harried in the otherwise thankless part of the disbelieving mother and whomever came up with the idea of enlisting David Strathairn to play Arthur Spiderwick deserves some kind of medal for spot-on casting. As the various creatures, Martin Short is slightly irritating as Thimbletack (then again, the character itself is meant to be kind of annoying as well), Seth Rogen gets some big laughs as Hogsqueal and Nick Nolte is appropriately fearsome as Mulgrath–unlike a lot of the bad guys in kid movies, this is a villain who actually sounds like he means business when making his various threats against our heroes.

Speaking of that, I was also surprised and delighted by the unusual intensity of the action on display here. You see, as someone whose childhood was peppered with such PG-rated moments as the Nazis with the melting faces from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Mola Ram yanking out the still-beating hearts of his victims in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and the kids in “E.T’ being chased by men with guns, it has been my opinion that kid-oriented films these days (not the PG-13 epics designed for all audiences) have become too safe and namby-pamby for their own good–removing all traces of actual danger or tension may keep overly sensitive parents from complaining but it doesn’t necessarily make for good storytelling. Happily, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” cheerfully goes for an approach similar to those old Amblin epics from a couple of decades ago and it really does make all the difference. When Mulgrath’s minions first attack the house and nail Simon, he winds up with some nasty marks that show without shadow of a doubt that they mean business and it adds an extra layer of tension to the proceedings early on. As for the finale, in which the monsters begin to lay siege to the house while the Graces fight them off with everything in their power, the combination of high humor, genuine excitement and splattery special effects results in a sequence that plays like a blissfully bizarre blend of two of the more infamous home invasions of screen history–the final reel of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” and the part in “Gremlins” when the titular creatures discover that they have picked the wrong kitchen to attack.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a modest and reasonably charming example of a genre that isn’t exactly renowned for modesty or charm. Instead of trying to pound audiences into submission with overly detailed backstories or elaborate visual effects, it lures them in with a nicely told story that gets the job done with a minimum of muss or fuss and actually comes to a conclusion instead of leaving us with a cliffhanger ending that may or may not ever be completed at some point down the line a la “The Golden Compass” or “The Seeker.” This is ironic because, unlike a lot of these would-be franchise films, this is one saga that, based on its initial entry, I actually wouldn’t mind seen a continuation of in a couple of years.

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