Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles
1 star (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
Now that J.K. Rowling has closed the gates to Hogwart’s, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are lining bargain bins at Wal-Mart, I often worry for the dreamers of today’s younger generation. To borrow the words of a friend, I was born addicted to fantasy, and when I was growing up, carefully crafted films like The Neverending Story, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and Ron Howard’s Willow captured my imagination and came out sporadically, making me savor them that much more. These days, in a post Rowling/Jackson world, fantasy flicks are cranked out of the Hollywood studio machine like sausages, in the hopes of cashing a big, pixie-dusted paycheck. Nickelodeon Films’ The Spiderwick Chronicles is the latest $100 million link to come off of the assembly line, and as far as this reviewer is concerned, it could have been entitled The Spiderwick Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Water Horse, and The Bridge to the Golden Compass.
While I’m unfamiliar with author Holly Black and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi’s series of books on which the movie is based, I’d be willing to bet director Mark Waters’ (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) screen version doesn’t do them much justice. No matter how many times stories about fairies, dwarves, and unicorns are regurgitated through the world of children’s literature, they’ll always work because they enable youth to envision a place that exists beyond their iPods (a device that actually makes a funny cameo in Spiderwick). To adapt these stories for the cinema with the same sparkle with which they were written is the tricky part, and Waters’ attempt fails to shine brightly. He condenses their four-volume tome - which, in a nutshell, is about three siblings who must protect their late, great, great uncle’s charmed journal in order to save our world and an unseen mystical realm from a group of angry goblins – into one, 97-minute feature, and that might be the film’s biggest pitfall.
We meet twins Jared and Simon Grace (child star-of-the-moment Freddie Highmore in a dual role) and their sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) as they and their mother (Mary Louise Parker) are moving into an eerie old house after leaving their life in New York. The secluded estate is the former home of the uncle, Arthur Spiderwick, who discovered a magical world of good and evil creatures just outside his door and recorded everything he found in a leather-bound “field guide.” The family is coping with Mom and Dad’s messy divorce, among other things, and the dynamics on display there are wholly believable. It’s once the adventurous Jared becomes hip to Arthur’s findings – which is the movie’s bread and butter – that things start to slip, and they never truly regain traction.
What’s at stake in Spiderwick doesn’t feel particularly epic, and by the time the story reaches its climax, the sensation of having been on a journey with these characters doesn’t register (an element that is vital for films of this type). On the page, Black’s words and DiTerlizzi’s drawings may have achieved this; but on the screen, Waters swiftly introduces us to a handful of fantastical things, then jumps into the mission to save them without making us care. The rest is just a platform for satisfactory but lackluster special effects.
On the plus side, one of my favorite things about movies like this is that they serve as an outlet for promising young actors to display their talents. Highmore, so great in 2004’s Finding Neverland, has reached that awkward stage of adolescence between child star and mature performer, a transition not every actor can achieve with grace (hello, Haley Joel Osment). Bolger, however, shows that her great turn as one of the daughters in Jim Sheridan’s In America from 2003 was no fluke. Genuine and poised, her performance is the best in the film because she’s the only one who looks like she’s enjoying herself. Parker, who’s too good for a bad movie, breezes through her scenes, as does David Strathairn as Spiderwick and Joan Plowright as his aged daughter. But Bolger knows just how to handle the material, and has a blast. Had the rest of the movie expressed her same focus and enthusiasm, we may have as well.
I know what you’re thinking: too critical for a family film, right? Well, consider this: I thought that Disney (and Pixar)’s Ratatouille was one of the finest films of last year, and that their adorably funny homage Enchanted wasn’t far behind. The best children’s movies are those that don’t treat their viewers like children, but like a legitimate audience. The Spiderwick Chronicles falls short of that, and it expects us to believe in a world full of impossible sights and sounds without truly investing us in that world. The film is suitable for families (despite some frightening sequences, crude elements, and some unwelcome innuendos of harsh language), and fans of the books will ultimately have the last word, but I would advise young visionaries and their parents to steer clear and wait for a sausage link of better quality.