Laura CliffordThe Grace family has fallen on hard times. Divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) is forced to move, with her three children, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore), from New York City to the crumbling family estate in a small, remote town. Jared, in particular, is having trouble with the relocation but the family’s problems pale when compared to the fantastical world they are about to enter in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
Right away, Jared hears something moving through the walls of the old house and, broomstick in hand, begins poking holes in the plaster, an act that his mother believes is his striking out against the move. Jared’s curiosity unveils a strange little creature, Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short), who can be seen only when he wants to be seen. While rummaging through his great uncle’s secret laboratory, the boy discovers a book written by Uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), a scientist who uncovered and chronicled a hidden world of fantastical creatures.
The book, the Spiderwick Chronicles, has been safe for some 80 years since Arthur’s disappearance, hidden in the house and protected by a magic circle surrounding the manse. The evil ogre Mulgarath (voice of Nick Nolte) cannot sense its existence until Jared brings the tome out of the protective circle. Suddenly, the ogre and his ugly minions know of the book’s existence and the battle line is drawn between good and evil.
Based on the book series by the same name (by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black), director Mark Waters, with scripters Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles, condense the 11 volumes into a tight, fast-paced and flashy fantasy adventure. The special F/X are top-notch and seamless as we are introduced to all manner of whimsical creatures – Mulgarath the ogre, his goblin followers, hobgoblin (and Jared’s ally) Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogen), faeries and sprites galore, a griffin and, of course, Thimbletack, who turns into an enraged bogart when angered. The effects are so well integrated with the live action, you stop being awed and start being convinced they are real.
Usually, the humans in a special effects extravaganza such as “The Spiderwick Chronicles” take a back seat to the technical wizardry of the F/X. Here, though, the live characters fare quite well opposite their CGI counterparts – especially the very talented Freddie Highmore who does a fine job giving shrift to the different characters of twin brothers Simon and Jared. Performances by Sarah Bolger, as combative, sword-wielding sister, Mallory, and Mary-Louise Parker as the put upon mom are solid, but the usually terrific David Strathairn is the weak link as Uncle Arthur. The vocal performances – Nick Nolte, Seth Rogen and Martin Short - are first rate.
Techs are flawless across the board with the special F/X blending nicely with the live action.
Be warned, parents, that younger children, under age seven, may have a problem with the often scary creatures that inhabit the Spiderwick world. Older kids, teens and adults, though, will have a good and entertaining time. And, you don’t have to read the books first to get the full impact of the story – something I could not say about last year’s “The Golden Compass.” I give “The Spiderwick Chronicles” a B+.
When Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker, SHOTime's "Weeds") splits from her husband and finances dictate she must move her family from New York City to her aunt's old run down mansion in the middle of nowhere, teenage daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger, "In America") is supportive and younger son Simon (Freddie Highmore, "Neverland," "August Rush") goes along, but Simon's twin Jared (also Highmore) reacts with silent rage. But Jared soon finds something about Aunt Lucinda's old house that captures his imagination - a secret room where his great-great uncle Arthur (David Strathairn, "Good Night, and Good Luck.") unlocked all kinds of magical secrets in a book now coveted by an evil ogre in "The Spiderwick Chronicles."
After conquering the teenage girl market with Lindsay Lohan's "Freaky Friday" and "Mean Girls," director Mark Waters turns to teenage boy fantasy (and potential franchise) with "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and proves quite adept at handling large scale special effects without overwhelming the intimacy of the story. As adapted by Karey Kirkpatrick ("Charlotte's Web"), David Berenbaum ("Elf") and John Sayles ("Lone Star," "Honeydripper"), the series of five illustrated books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black have been compacted into one feature length film that dispenses with the river troll and dwarves and relegates the griffin to a cameo. With the focus squarely on the character of Jared, Mallory's fencing only comes into play against magical creatures and Simon's menagerie of pets become background, yet the essence of the book and the characters' psychology are retained.
After a brief prologue which hints at Arthur Spiderwick's fate, we're flash forwarded to the present '80 years later' as the Grace family arrives at the crumbling estate watched by unseen observers in the woods. While mom marvels at the oddity of a kitchen stocked full of honey and tomato sauce, Simon notes the salt at every windowsill and Jared is alert to strange rustlings. When Mallory's fencing medal disappears, Jared is blamed and she becomes further enraged to find him poking holes through a kitchen wall with a broomstick until she herself inadvertently knocks out a larger section revealing a dumbwaiter stocked with assorted treasures including her medal. She and Simon go to bed, but the adventurous Jared hoists himself up inside the wall to discover Arthur Spiderwick's hidden study and his Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. Despite a severe warning against reading the book, Jared dives in, unleashing a world of brownies who turn into boggers, faeries, goblins and the evil ogre Mulgrath (Nick Nolte, "The Beautiful Country").
Putting two and two together, Jared attempts to right a wrong by building a house for the creature in the wall and luring it with honey. Bingo! A foot high house brownie named Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short, "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause") who speaks in rhyme arrives on the scene and informs Jared that the Field Guide must never fall into the hands of Mulgrath who would use its secrets to dominate and kill. The first to suffer for Jared's indiscretion is his twin, Simon, attacked in the yard by goblins he cannot see and dragged away through the woods. Aided by a circular stone that allows him to view the creatures, Jared sets off to save his brother and finds a goblin encampment where Simon and others are suspended from trees in cages. One of those others is hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogen, "Knocked Up," "Superbad") who convinces Jared to set him free by offering to help save his brother (Hogsqueal also 'gifts' the Graces by spitting in their eyes, giving them the sight). We also get our first glimpse of Mulgrath, initially seen as a stooped old man (Nolte).
The books's canny balance of teens dealing with some harsh realities of the modern world while becoming enmeshed in a fantastical one is slightly hamstrung by the absence of the pressures of school life (Mallory's fencing competitions and budding romance, Jared's run ins with bullies), but the pressures of growing up and the different strains put upon parental relationships are held intact largely due to the performances. Freddie Highmore does double duty as twins with opposing instincts - Jared is rash and emotional while Simon is quiet and non-confrontational (and unfortunately all but washed out by the demands on Highmore and the adaptation). It's great to see Sarah Bolger back onscreen after her terrific performance in "In America" and while she isn't the book's awkward tomboy, she does put forth the more emotionally mature yet bossy bigger sister. Mary-Louise Parker is great as the mom trying to hold a family together while under great pressures. Outside of the modern family, performances are less successful. The great Strathairn is stiff and dazed and Plowright holds one wide-eyed expression throughout.
Special effects are truly impressive from the constantly changing Thimbletack (he becomes the green Bogart when angry) to the finely defined Hogsqueal (love that nose!) to the band of goblins seen only as dancing leaves when not gifted by the sight. Faeries erupt from Aunt Lucinda's (Joan Plowright, "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont") windowboxes and delicate sylphs hold Arthur hostage. Highmore's interactions with himself as the twins are perfectly seamless. The film is lovingly photographed by veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("Fly Away Home," "National Treasure") who has spun magic before with "The Natural."
Economy aids the film's terrific climax, although continuity suffers when massive destruction of the Grace mansion is set aside for sentiment. Still, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is a satisfying adventure spun from a family that feel like real, ordinary people.
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