Skip to main content

You don't see us, now you do, but only if we want you to.


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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.