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The Spiderwick Chronicles
(2008)

Just as there is currently a glut of “young adult” novels bombarding cinema screens, many of them doomed to stall on an initial installment, so the success of Harry Potter ensured that every studio wished to try its hand at young fantasy adaptations. The Hunger Games’ success at least meant that Twilight did not represent a flash-in-the-pan for the former sub-genre, but nothing, as yet, has inherited the mantle of the Hogwarts’ spellcaster (Percy Jackson has stumbled to a second outing, but to the surprise of many). 

The Spiderwick Chronicles adapts (as far as I can tell) plot elements from the first three of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s children’s books (there are five, which have been followed by a Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series). Predictably, there’s a large chunk of mythology and backstory to inform the viewer of, mostly involving the discoveries of Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, the great-great uncle of the protagonists) and his field guide to fairies, the possession of which would represent an object of great power for the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). Twins Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore) and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), who have just moved into the Spiderwick estate with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker), must prevent the book from falling into the ogre’s hands.

Karey Kirkpatrick has adapted a number of children’s novels, including The Little Vampire and Charlotte’s Web. While David Berenbaum’s CV is less impressive, the other credited writer is none other than the laudable John Sayles (who has his own link with Strathairn, 1999’s Limbo). Director Mark Waters (brother of the more scabrous Daniel) rises to the challenge of an effects-heavy adventure film admirably (for the most part). His calling cards were “when she still had so much promise” Lindsay Lohan films Freaky Friday and Mean Girls. Given how good many of the effects are, it’s ironic that Waters comes unstuck with something as basic as Highmore sharing the screen (but not eyeline) with Highmore.

Nevertheless, the creatures are unanimously well-rendered, and Waters does a fine job in building up the tension as the magically-protected Spiderwick house comes under assault from a welter of goblins. The potentially confusing principles and rules of this world (who and how the fairie kingdom can be seen, for example) are established without fuss. Elsewhere, Waters knows to balance scares with laughs (the Martin Short-voiced Thimbletack’s honey-addiction is the only thing that can control his temper).

In some respects, this resembles a family-friendly Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Except, crucially, it has a vibrancy that the Guillermo Del Toro-produced film lacks. There’s a strong sense of a hidden and mysterious world, particularly in the opening stages, that creates a sense of anticipation and wonder far stronger than the rather mechanically-executed Harry Potter films.

While the performers are all competent, the choice of Freddie Highmore for the lead(s) brings with it a fair amount of baggage. Highmore is certainly a capable actor, and he draws easily identifiable distinctions between the twins, but he also has an intensity that can be creepy or unsettling when a more moderate approach is called for. Jared’s temper tantrums verge on demonic possession as depicted by Freddie; Haley Joel Osment showed a similar difficulty transitioning to teenage roles. You need to identify with Jared, ultimately, rather than dismiss him as a psychotic little shit (however, he certainly sells an extraordinarily Oedipal moment at a late stage; strong stuff for a kids’ movie). As such, I can’t think of more suitable casting than Highmore as Norman in the forthcoming Bates Motel TV series.

The other “human” actors are all fine; Bolger is especially spirited as the fencing-student big sister, while both Strathairn and Joan Plowright make a strong impression during their limited screen time (in connection with these characters, the film seems to deliver a curiously reactionary message regarding the natural order of aging and death). Unfortunately, this is another film blighted by the inane presence of oafish Seth Rogen. Credit to his agent, the pudding-faced actor has amassed a fair collection of voice roles. But he’s no less irritating for not being able to see him, just aesthetically less harmful.

Spiderwick’s worth a look, despite my reservations concerning the lead. This is a family film that isn’t afraid to scare the little ones, and one that provokes, rather than stems, the imagination. A bit of a shame it didn’t warrant any follow-ups. No doubt there will be a reboot in a few years’ time.  

***1/2

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