The Spiderwick Chronicles
Dark, emotional fantasy isn’t just for kids
By Devin D. O’Leary
The Spiderwick Chronicles
Directed by Mark Waters
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker
In an era when kids’ films seem almost as creatively bankrupt as romantic comedies, it’s refreshing (dare I say exciting) to find one that swims against the tide. The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the popular young adult book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, would seem at first glance to exist among the idea-starved crowd. A kids’ fantasy series in a day and age when all youth-seeking lit seems to cower in the shadow of Harry Potter? Though it features a trio of plucky, prepubescent heroes and a whole host of magical creatures, Spiderwick weaves its own unique spell.
The film, directed by Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters, wastes little time introducing us to the Grace family. On sole parental duty is harried mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker--who’s great, but still way too hot to be relegated to generic mom duty). Helen has recently divorced her barely there husband and--due mostly to economic issues--moved her three kids to a crumbling old family estate out in the woods somewhere. Unsettled by the move are tomboyish older sis Mallory (Sarah Bolger, In America) and tween twins Simon and Jared (Freddie Highmore of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame playing both roles for no readily apparent reason other than it jacks up the special effects budget).
Despite their disappointment at being shuffled off to the middle of nowhere, it’s not long before the kids are eagerly exploring the ins and outs of their musty, secret-filled estate. In another story, they might uncover ghosts or pirate treasure. In this case, they find a book. This is no ordinary book, mind you. Penned by their long-gone great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Oscar nominee David Strathairn of Good Night, and Good Luck), Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You is an encyclopedia packed with practical information about brownies, sprites, fairies, goblins, hobgoblins and other assorted magical creatures invisibly inhabiting the world around us. Adults, feel free to think of this as the supernatural version of Pokémon.
Rebellious young Jared believes the book is real--especially after encountering the book’s guardian, an anger-prone brownie named Thimbletack (Martin Short, contributing his most useful effort in ages). Mallory and Simon aren’t so quick to believe Jared, particularly since the boy has become something of a troublemaker since his parents’ contentious divorce. But when a malevolent, shape-shifting goblin named Mulgrath (Nick Nolte, in a small but memorably psycho cameo) sends his warty hordes to capture the book and its secrets, the rest of the Grace clan become believers in short order.
The plot itself moves like its tail is on fire, sending the kids scampering from one narrow scrape to another. Ultimately, the story is a rather simplistic one, approaching nowhere near the narrative depth of, say, The Lord of the Rings. Given its target audience, that’s hardly a criticism. The characters, on the other hand, are written with a surprising amount of subtlety. Hidden among the screenwriters is John Sayles (Lone Star, Passion Fish, Matewan), who can probably be credited with most of the film’s sharper moments. Like his earlier fantasy The Secret of Roan Inish, this film has an eye for magical wonder combined with an ear for emotional realism.
Dark, mature and filled with intense moments, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a family fantasy that refuses to talk down to its audience. This isn’t some lily-livered kiddy tale that feels the need to hide certain hard truths from young ones. The Grace kids are all dealing with their parents’ divorce in different ways. Jared takes it particularly hard, acting out violently and gaining a reputation for fabrication. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those sunny fantasies in which mom and dad’s separation is built up just so a last-minute reunion can provide a happy ending.
In fact, the film plays out like a horror movie more than anything else. Mulgrath’s toad-like army lays siege to the old Spiderwick mansion, trapping the kids inside and forcing them to defend themselves against impending dismemberment. The result is like a combination of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the story of the Hopkinsville goblins (a notorious rural legend about ravenous little monsters attacking a Kentucky farmhouse). The film’s somewhat generous PG-rating should be well heeded. Kids under a certain age may develop nightmares after this one.
Banish derivative, trend-hopping fantasy-books-turned-films like Eragon and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising from your mind. The Spiderwick Chronicles is the rarest of beasts: an intelligent fantasy with a genuine sense of wonderment, a better-than-necessary cast and some incredibly impressive special effects. Believe it or not, this is one kids’ film adults would be perfectly happy seeing--even without a kid at their side.
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