Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The bar for fantasy films aimed at a child audience has been set almost unattainably high by the Harry Potter films and The Chronicles of Narnia films. The Spiderwick Chronicles positioned itself to compete in that rarified air but in its execution it falls woefully short.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, like Narnia and Potter, pull from a series of young adult books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. Since the Spring of 2003, there have been five books published in the main series and two ancillary titles. Not unlike the Lemony Snicket books, the producers at Nickelodeon Films needed to combine more than one book to fill a feature length film. Instead of thinking forward to future films and further time for character development, they decided to adapt all five into one film (leaving out a majority of the plot of Book Four).
As an arm of Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Films has a tradition of developing their own TV programs to film (Rugrats, Jimmy Neutron and SpongeBob SquarePants) and similar live-action family fare (Good Burger, Nacho Libre and Lemony Snicket). This fantasy film falls right into line with their previous releases.
The movie opens in a promising way. Single mother, Mrs. Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) arrives at a "haunted house" (Spiderwick Estate) with her three children – older sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger who was brilliant in In America) and twins, Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore who played Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Simon and Jared are polar opposite characters and young actor, Highmore, pulls this off pretty well through hair and posture differences and slight voice inflections. Simon is the peacekeeper of the family, avoiding conflict at all costs. Jared is our main character, our storyteller and mischievous. In the opening scenes, there are weird happenings and sounds surrounding the house. Whether it's disappearing trinkets of the family or noises in the bushes, these Amityville Horror type of touches set a good creepy mood. Jared is blamed for most of the weirdness, setting the tone for his character.
Jared's discovery of Spiderwick's Field Guide book sets in motion the thin plot of the film. He meets a brownie named Thimbletack (Martin Short) who becomes our exposition to the world of faeries and the plot for the remaining 70 minutes of the film. Thimbletack tells Jared that an ogre named Mulgarth (Nick Nolte) wants to steal the Field Guide to learn its lessons and take over the faeries. When Simon is accidentally mistaken for Jared and kidnapped by Mulgarth's goblins, we meet Hogsquel (Seth Rogen) a comic relief that likes to eat birds and figures prominently in the end of the story.
The adventures leading to the resolution of the story feel episodic and rushed. There are some great special effects that are not given time to live and breathe as they are in Lord Of The Rings or Chronicles Of Narnia. There seems to be a rush to keep the plot regarding the Field Guide moving forward instead of getting to know this universe of faeries or more about the Grace family.
The plot elements hint at a much larger and better story. Most fantasy aimed at young adults works well when it clearly works without its fantasy elements. The Harry Potter books and films would be interesting stories if Hogwarts was just a normal school instead of one full of magic. The addition of the fantasy elements allows the director to tell the story of the "real" world in the context of the magical world. The Grace family has gone through a divorce. Jared's deep denial of this and wish for his father to return has resonance in many of the magical plot lines. Mulgarth is a bad ogre and bad father figure. In fact, little is played of the fact that Mulgarth disguises himself as Mr. Grace but when he is discovered, Jared must stab him in the stomach.
We meet their elderly Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright), who herself was abandoned by her father, Arthur Spiderwick (David Starthairn). Her pain should be an inspiration to the Grace children but there is not that connection. There isn't the moment of healing or hope from her to the kids. In the end, Lucinda and Arthur will find a timeless reuniting that is really more metaphorical and real. Is this symbolic of a reuniting with Mr. Grace and the kids or is their abandonment illustrated more by the stabbing of the "father" and his turning into a snake?
This movie would've been better served to break the five books into two or three films. The actors do a wonderful job and I would love to see more of the special effects. The monsters are interesting but you have to wait for the Special Features on the DVD to really appreciate them. The style is here but not the substance. This will not fall into the pantheon of the great fantasy films being released in the past ten years.
The DVD is loaded with extras and special features. "The Field Guide", "It's A Spiderwick World", "Making Spiderwick" and "Deleted Scenes" are all entertaining and hint even more at the larger world that Nickelodeon thought they were creating. It's a shame to let such timeless possibilities go to waste. There's always next time, Nick.