The Spiderwick Chronicles Enchants – And Scares… A Little!

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In this age of bowdlerized fairytales and Political Correctness, it would seem that most venues for storytelling are more concerned with not offending someone than actually telling a story. The writers of the five volumes of The Spiderwick Chronicles created their stories with a refreshingly dark edge – something that kids of all ages immediately gravitated toward. It is my great pleasure to tell you that the makers of the film adaptation have not watered the books down. Any changes [and there are a few] are solely to bring the books’ dark enchantment to the big screen.

A brief prologue finds Arthur Spiderwick [David Strathairn] finishing his Field Guide and being swept away by sylphs, after telling his friend Thimbletack [voiced by Martin Short], a brownie, to keep the book safe. He is swept away before the eyes of his young daughter, Lucy [Jordy Benattar].

Eighty years later – or, now – the Grace Family pulls up in front of a house of the sort that usually means serial killers, monsters or other generally dire circumstances/creatures. Helen Grace [Mary-Louise Parker] and her children, athletic Mallory [Sarah Bolger who is a splendid fencer, and the twins, bookish Simon and adventurous, but gloomy Jared [Freddie Highmore], are here because they have nowhere else to go. The house is a legacy from Helen’s Aunt Lucinda [Joan Plowright].

Immediately things go weird. Jared hears something in the walls – something that raps back at him when he raps on the wall. The discovery of a dumbwaiter leads to the discovery of a secret attic room – and The Book. When Jared breaks the seal on Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide, it sets in motion a series of events that could cause the end of everything.

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The Spiderwick Chronicles is a beautiful movie. From the eerie house to the goblins, trolls and sylphs and the forest surrounding the Grace home, though, that beauty has an edge that creates a singular mood. The film looks like it could have been designed by Brian Froud [The Dark Crystal], though it’s actually very close to the line drawings that illustrate the books [I’m thinking that Tony DiTerlizzi must have been influenced by the same great artists who influenced Froud – or Froud, himself].

The CG effects are extremely good and folded into the story in a way that shows respect for both the story itself, and the audience. There are some excellent practical effe3cts too, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell which is which.

The story is as close to a modern fairytale as it can get. The Graces, it turns out, have moved into Aunt Lucinda’s old mansion because the parents are getting divorced. Right there, you have enough drama for a good movie, but here it just sets the stage for the sullen Jared to be blamed for the antics of Thimbletack after his home is unwittingly disturbed.

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All good fairytales must have what Joss Whedon refers to as a Big Bad. Here, an ogre named Mulgarath [Nick Nolte in voice, and briefly, in form] is the Big Bad. You see, the Field Guide contains the secrets of all the various creatures of Faery – and Mulgarath can use the book to enslave or destroy them – and after them, all humans. 

Mulgarath’s army of goblins is kept at bay by a circle of toadstools around the house – kind of like those energy fields made popular by Star Trek. Unfortunately, if the Graces are outside the circle, they can be caught – and Simon finds himself in a cage at one point. Naturally, there are other ways to defend against these creatures.

Aunt Lucinda, Arthur Spiderwick and even a pet griffin all have parts to play in the ensuing drama. And we find out why the Grace pantry came well [possibly over] stocked with things like honey, tomato sauces, salt and such. A hobgoblin named Hogsqeal [voiced by Seth Rogen] plays a part, too – especially his saliva can enable humans to see faery creatures without the use of a seeing stone [a stone with a naturally occurring hole in it].

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The Spiderwick Chronicles works, in part, because the writers [Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles] know how to capture that Grimm’s Fairytales feeling of genuine danger in and amongst the fun bits, and director Mark Waters takes their screenplay and runs with it.

What really makes the film work is the way issues like trust and abandonment are treated here. The fairytale world conjured here is not a place where you can go to escape your problems. Instead, it reflects them and, in a way, amplifies them and forces you to confront them. There are lessons to be learned here and the beauty if The Spiderwick Chronicles is that the lessons are learned without a feeling of having been taught.

While the film will undoubtedly enthral kids, it is also done with the kind of intelligence [insofar as it doesn’t talk down to them] that will appeal to adults, as well.

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It doesn’t hurt that the adult cast are so good, or that the kid cast is even better. Freddie Highmore, it seems, is capable of a great deal. He not only succeeds at playing twins, I doubt we’d have any trouble figuring it out if they were to swap clothes – he makes both characters that distinct and memorable.

David Strathairn’s Arthur Spiderwick is a gentle, slightly confused gentleman whose influence is felt throughout the film, though he’s only in a few key scenes. Joan Plowright makes Aunt Lucinda a kind of cheerfully knowing old woman who has never quite let her inner child die. Mary-Louise Parker has the toughest role of all – she has to communicate love, irritation, anger, disbelief and more in a role that really is underwritten and does so flawlessly.

The sibling relationships between Mallory, Simon and Jared feel authentic, too. And since they get to deal with Mulgarath’s army far more than the adult characters, their fear and courage have to have more depth than the adult characters. Bolger and Highmore do an especially good job in making us believe them, emotionally, throughout.

The Spiderwick Chronicles from having the kind of budget to pull off its otherworldly atmosphere and the kind of cast required to allow the audience to buy into its premise. Who knows? It might even takes peoples’ minds off Harry Potter for awhile.

Final Grade: A

One thought on “The Spiderwick Chronicles Enchants – And Scares… A Little!”

  1. I took my 4 year old twins to see this last week. With all the publicity in the fast food joints and during the kids shows, I thought this would have been a good one for them. They wanted to see it before hand, but during the movie, they did ask to leave a few times. A bit on the scary side for 4 year olds. Definitely a 10 year old type of movie and adult. I enjoyed what i did see.

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