- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by David Medsker
oviegoers have spent the last two years trudging through many a mediocre tweener fantasy movie fast-tracked in the wake of Pottermania – have you forgotten “Eragon” and “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” so quickly? – but “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is the first one that feels like a genuinely worthy heir to the throne. It’s obviously not playing the same sport as J.K. Rowling’s books in terms of scope, but that turns out to be a virtue, resulting in a straight-forward plot with none of the tangents that bogged down “The Golden Compass” and even the more recent “Harry Potter” movies.
Freddie Highmore flaunts child labor laws by playing twins Jared and Simon Grace, who movie into their great aunt’s estate with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) following their parents’ divorce. Jared, angry about the divorce, is lashing out at anyone and everyone, putting him at odds with everyone in his family. He discovers a hidden dumb waiter in their new home, which leads to the study of his great grandfather Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), who disappeared 80 years before. Inside a chest is a sealed book, which contains a portentous note on the cover warning the reader that reading the book may put their life at risk. Jared opens the book, and reads of his great grandfather’s life’s work, studying a fantastical world of fairies and goblins. What Jared doesn’t realize is that this world is right outside their house, and an evil troll named Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) wants the book for himself so he can become all-powerful. None of Jared’s relatives believe him at first, until the goblins kidnap Simon thinking he’s Jared, and Jared must use the book, and his smarts, to save his family.
It is very telling that “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is directed not by someone known for experience in either the action or fantasy genres but Mark Waters, the director of “Just Like Heaven,” “Mean Girls” and the Lindsay Lohan remake of “Freaky Friday.” Waters is a story-first guy, and that is the best possible choice for a movie like “Spiderwick.” He knows he can find someone to help with the special effects; his job is to make people care about the special effects, and he does just that (the makers of “The Seeker,” meanwhile, did just the opposite). Of course, it helps when you have Highmore, the unofficial Cutest Kid in Hollywood, in a dual role. As my colleague Jason Zingale said, if there’s anything better than Freddie Highmore, it’s two Freddie Highmores.
Where the movie pushes its luck is with the animated characters. Seth Rogen voices a four-nostriled beast with a short attention span named Hogsqueal, and while his primary goal appears to be comic relief (and a couple nasty sight gags), he only occasionally succeeds. Ditto Martin Short as the shape-shifting Thimbletack. His rhyming dialogue surely lends itself to the printed page better than the silver screen. The movie’s villains aren’t well fleshed out, either. Mulgrath spends most of the movie off-camera, which undermines his scare factor. Plus, he has recruited the densest group of henchmen imaginable to carry out his evil scheme.
If “The Spiderwick Chronicles” turns out to be the last of the kiddie fantasy movies to hit the screens, it would be a dignified end to what was ultimately a very hit-and-miss trend. Hollywood, of course, will learn nothing from the mistakes that they made along the way, citing the casting of Highmore as the reason for this movie’s likeability and the decision to hire unknowns for the leads in “The Seeker” and “Eragon” as the reason those movies didn’t fare so well. The thing is, the reason “Spiderwick” works is actually simpler than that: it’s just a more engaging story.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Paramount has squandered a great opportunity with the single-disc release of “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Instead of cramming it with hours of special features dedicated to the creation of the fantasy world, the collection of cookie-cutter extras feels incredibly rushed. Director Mark Waters kicks off the bonus material with an introduction to the film directed towards young viewers, but from there, everything gets very adult (and boring). Generic featurettes on the book-to-film adaptation (“It’s a Spiderwick World”), casting (“Meet the Clan”) and special effects (“The Magic of Spiderwick”) all make an appearance, while the actual making-of featurette fails to offer anything new. Also included is an inside look at Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide, but there’s nothing here that isn’t already discussed in the film. And to make matters worse, the Blu-ray exclusive version of the Field Guide (which allows you to access it while watching the film) actually makes viewing it more difficult. Ugh.