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The Spiderwick Chronicles

spiderwick_chronicles_poster.jpgstarring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker and Nick Nolte
written by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles and directed by Mark Waters
rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements.
90%

Based on the five books of the best-selling children’s series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles is about a family and their discovery of the magical world that exists all around them. Helen (Parker) and her three kids, Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Simon and Jared (Highmore), move onto the Spiderwick Estate in the midst of a family crisis. The Grace parents have separated, and Jared is siding with his dad and taking out his anger on everyone around him. Soon, he stumbles on a book (written by his great-great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick) with a prominent warning on the cover (which he ignores) and unknowingly invites the attention of an evil ogre named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) who needs the knowledge contained in the book to conquer the rest of the fairy world. With the help of his siblings and a few new friends, Jared must find a way to keep the book out of the hands of Mulgarath’s goblin army without losing his life in the process.

Not having read The Spiderwick Chronicles, I came in cold and was largely drawn in and entertained by the story. The movie often has a very “family film” feel to it in the way it deals with emotional issues, but at its heart it is simply a story for children and about children, nothing more. With respect to the more adventurous elements, it doesn’t minimize the peril. Quite the opposite in fact, and younger children may well find the result rather frightening. Everyone else should find the result exhilarating.

Freddie Highmore is a very talented actor and performs well in both of his roles, but I felt that perhaps too much was being asked of him here. The scenes where his two characters are forced to interact with each other did not feel as seamless as similar efforts have. Mary-Louise Parker is perfect in this sort of role (very similar to her wide-eyed-suburban-mom-turned-drug-dealer in Weeds, oddly enough), and Nick Nolte is always a good choice to channel gravelly-voiced menace. Perhaps the most pleasant surprises, though, are the celebrity voices of CG-characters Thimbletack (a brownie/boggart) and Hogsqueal (a hobgoblin). They are voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen, respectively, but the actors don’t allow their recognizable voices and personas to overwhelm the roles, as so often happens in such cases.

Best of all, though, in a market that is increasingly filling with eye-popping fantasy worlds, Spiderwick at its best manages to retain a true sense of wonder and discovery. As I understand it, the best aspect of the original books are DiTerlizzi’s eye-poppingly imaginative renditions of the elves, brownies, sylphs, griffons, and dozens of varieties of fairies that populate the series. If the movie has a serious flaw, it is the streamlining of the plot to a degree which cuts out most of the incredible variety that DiTerlizzi has created on paper. Nevertheless, the creatures that do make it to the screen are a visual treat to behold, and the plot (bare-bones though it may be) plays as an excellent metaphor for the real-life problems faced by the Graces and other families everywhere.

Combining tried-and-true conventions of this rapidly-expanding genre with a unique flavor of its own, to great effect, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a bright spot amid the gloom this season usually brings to the local theater. Without (probably) turning into a franchise itself (having used up the entire series at a single go), it should ensure that films like it continue to be made, and, hopefully, made well.

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~ by Jared on February 15, 2008.

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