Mark Waters’ The Spiderwick Chronicles doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the fantasy genre. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single thing in it that I had never seen before, or that I couldn’t at least cross-reference to another movie. Even if faeries, brownies, ogres, goblins, hobgoblins etc. are something of a pleasant variation, the overall story and action is mighty familiar. But at the same time, Spiderwick does what it does remarkably well.
Most of the credit should probably go to director Mark Waters, who is no stranger to the fantastic: see Freaky Friday (2003) and the misbegotten Just Like Heaven (2005). Even his much-praised Mean Girls (2004) wasn’t without interjections of cheeky fantasy. The particular kind of fantasy on display here is of a very different kind; however, it’s Waters’ effortless stylishness and innate ability to sympathize with his characters that brings Spiderwick to life as much as—or more than—the impressive array of special effects that make the fantastical creatures of the movie possible.
Another plus—especially notable with a film geared toward a younger audience—is the story itself. Working from a series of very slim books of no discernible literary merit by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles simplified—and in some cases significantly altered—the story down to its basics. They retained the setup of a mother, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), on the eve of a divorce, taking her three children, Mallory (Sarah Bolger, In America) and twins Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore), to live in the dilapidated Spiderwick mansion given over to her by her institutionalized great-aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright). The screenwriters also retained the idea of Jared as the troubled brother—upset over the impending divorce and the move to the middle of nowhere—and, in fact, expanded on this aspect, deepening the human angle of the story. The central concept of Jared’s discovery of his great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s (David Strathairn) field guide to the magical creatures that surround us is similarly intact.
However, large, often repetitive chunks of the adventures have been excised in favor of a straightforward approach centering on the efforts of the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) to obtain the book. Perhaps the biggest change, though, lies in the completely rewritten story’s climax. (This appears to have been a late-in-the-day decision, since Mulgarath’s junkyard palace, which sets the stage for the books’ climax—and which the film never gets to—can be seen in the background of one of the earlier scenes.) The changes found in the movie—along with a very different ending for Arthur and Lucinda Spiderwick—may irritate some of the books’ more ardent admirers, but they certainly work within the confines of the film. Plus, they help to keep the proceedings down to an admirably compact 97-minute running time.
For the most part, the film works better than many recent attempts at fantasy. Certainly, it’s leagues ahead of The Seeker, and while it lacks the intellectual underpinnings (and controversy) of The Golden Compass, it also lacks a screenplay overloaded with information rushing forth too quickly to process.
The performances also help make the film successful, though it takes nearly two-thirds of the movie for Mary-Louise Parker to be given anything to do other than look exasperated at the seemingly incomprehensible antics of her children. Martin Short and Seth Rogen, who provided the voices for the more comical supernatural beings, Thimbletack and Hogsqueal respectively, occasionally come off as a little forced, but not obnoxiously so. And while Nick Nolte is only briefly on-screen in his own body, his Mulgarath is definitely a villain to be reckoned with.
Having said that, it would be well to advise that Mulgarath and some of the other monsters in the film might be altogether too much for younger viewers. I applaud the fact that the film doesn’t shy away from delivering real scares, but that also means that parents should be cautious. Material that didn’t terrify a young child on the printed page can be something else again with the immediacy of film. All in all, though, Spiderwick is a pleasant oasis in the general run of mainstream mediocrity that threatens to swamp us at this time of year. Rated PG for scary-creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements.