Every since Harry Potter reared his ugly head in theaters, studios have been trying to take advantage of the fantasy kid's genre, the thought being that kids would eat up anything involving magic and goblins. The studios tragically misfired, however, incorrectly assuming that a craving to see Harry Potter meant a craving to see any semi-popular series converted to the silver screen. After some disastrous flops such as The Seeker and The Golden Compass, you have to assume that Paramount Pictures was a little worried about their $90 million franchise film The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is about three siblings who learn that their house is surrounded by evil goblins.
If Paramount wasn't worried, they should have been, as The Spiderwick Chronicles went on to make only $70 million domestically. It's a shame, as the movie is actually pretty good.
Freddie Highmore, who is this decade's Haley Joel Osmet, stars as both Jared and Simon Grace. Jared stumbles across a magical book that unleashes the fury of a nearby ogre (Nick Nolte) who will be able to take over the world if he gets his hand on it. Jared, his brother and his sister, played by Sarah Bolger, find themselves outnumbered as an army of goblins surround their home, waiting for them to make one bad move.
Mark Waters, who has had success directing comedies such as Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, does an effective job in his first serious film. There are some goofy moments, mainly revolving around the friendly hobgoblins, but this is a fairly serious kid's movie. The Spiderwick Chronicles is not made for younger children, as there are plenty of creepy moments. The kids get pretty bloodied up in their first encounter with the goblins, and the villain Mulgarath is no walk in the park. Waters approaches the movie as an exciting adventure film, and pulls it off as such. The Spiderwick Chronicles offers almost non-stop action from minute one.
Highmore, ever since landing on the map with Finding Neverland, has made a career of catering to the fantasy genre. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Arthur and the Invisibles and even The Golden Compass, Highmore is apparently the go-to guy for these kinds of pictures. Thankfully, he does a pretty good job of portraying two noticeably different characters and, in general, supports this rather lofty film on his shoulders. Bolger and Mary-Louise Parker also turn in pretty good supporting performances.
The movie is not without its faults, however. At 101 minutes, it still feels short and abridged. Nolte appears near the beginning of the film, but never shows up again in his human form. Mulgarath is an incomplete villain who doesn't get the development needed to be truly intimidating. In the climax, he chases the kids as a variety of beasts, none of which are as creepy as Nolte can be in human form. Furthermore, he gets killed so abruptly that you're left wanting a lot more. In fact, the last five minutes or so are not very good, as Waters gives the film a surprisingly kid-friendly ending to an otherwise serious film. From the way the bad guy gets killed to the hippogriff flying around just before the credits roll, it looks like Paramount forced Waters to redo something more sinister.
Nevertheless, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a surprisingly entertaining and intense film that, at least in excitement factor, pushes its PG rating. Recommended.
Review by Robert Bell (B+)It's not a secret that there's a great deal of cash to be made in exploiting the fairy tales and fantasy series we all grew up on. The success of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia left studios thinking big budget fantasies could do no wrong. However, rules are made to be broken. The disappointments of The Seeker and the underrated Golden Compass (how can people hate a cynical anti-establishment kids movie, which teaches children that a million people can be wrong?) have shaken up the formula somewhat. The Spiderwick Chronicles seems to be a step back in the positive direction for the fantasy genre and should keep children collecting McDonald's Happy Meal toys for awhile longer.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is Nickelodeon's most recent entry into the children's fantasy genre. It's a decent film that should satisfy both children and parents despite the fact that it seems comfortable in its own mediocrity, and doesn't leave a particularly lasting impression.
Young Jared (Freddie Highmore) isn't pleased about moving from fast-paced New York to a rural, decaying manor. His recently divorced mother (Mary Louise Parker), domineering sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and mellow twin brother Simon (Freddie Highmore) struggle in dealing with the violent temper and emotional outbursts of Jared, often leaving him on his own.
Left to his own accord, Jared discovers a mysterious book that is being protected by Thimbletack, an elf-like creature with a craving for honey. The discovery of this book alerts many ill-intentioned goblins surrounding the manor who desperately want to know the secrets contained within.
Where Spiderwick succeeds is in its focus on characters and their interactions. Mary Louise Parker raises the bar for the often disposable single mom character, giving her layers and the requisite pain rightfully associated with her plight. This isn't the plucky balls-to-the-wall "Nancy Botwin" Parker we're used to. It is a woman struggling with how to deal with her increasingly violent son and the increased newfound responsibility of raising a family on her own. Her relationships with her children are tender, yet never saccharine. This is a loving family with deep flaws and new scars. Freddie Highmore shows quite a bit of range for a young actor, playing two characters believably. He fares better with the darker Jared, convincingly conveying a young man's rage with powerlessness in a world that seems increasingly unfair.
While the film succeeds in introducing the characters, it struggles in creating a memorable fantasy world and in conveying its preachy didactic. The primary conflict in the film surrounding a boy, a book, and goblins, is surprisingly simple. While simplicity isn't a flaw in itself, it does become a problem when such a great deal of time is spent developing it. Once the conflict is ultimately resolved the audience will be left asking the simple question "is that it?"
The application of didactic in the film is also rather annoying. There are mirroring storylines of men who leave their families for selfish pursuits. In both storylines, the families left behind are fighting armies of goblins and forced to retreat from the world. The subtext isn't particularly subtle, nor is it particularly flattering. It's somewhat better than the Judeo-Christian ethics spoon-fed to the audience in the tales of Narnia, but still not overly progressive.
Mark Waters does a great job behind the camera. He has a knack for getting very natural performances from all of his leads (aside from David Strathairn who seems to be talking down to the material). He also shows strength in consistent tone and pace. The film clips along rather well and is unlikely to confuse or bore many viewers.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a worthwhile diversion in a relatively flaky multiplex. It's nice to see a mainstream film focus on characters and interactions rather than self indulgent direction and overly contrived arcs. This should please audiences open to watching a children's fantasy movie and those who haven't fully retreated into an entirely cynical adult world.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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