The Spiderwick Chronicles – Fantasy Film Review

I tried, Mr. Spock. I really tried…to like this movie, that is. I liked the ads I saw for it and was honestly looking forward to it. But alas, I knew within five minutes it just wasn’t going to hook me. The whole thing simply felt too formulaic, too aware that it was a movie. Even David Strathairn (MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH, BOURNE ULTIMATUM), who played Arthur Spiderwick, and whom I normally like, seemed too cognizant that he was making a “kids” movie and it showed in his performance—right from his very first scene, I might add.
And isn’t the embittered kid due to unhappy family circumstances (normally divorce, of course) becoming just a wee bit tiresome? At least the manner in which it’s handled in film? Obviously the angry kid learns his lesson in the end, but I felt him not much more than irritating and found myself caring little about him. His siblings rather failed to draw me in as well. Besides, the broken-family device was handled so much better in a little film called E.T.
Director Mark Waters (JUST LIKE HEAVEN, FREAKY FRIDAY) seemed a little out of his element on this picture. With all due respect to him, it felt to this viewer that a project of this film’s nature probably needed someone at the helm with a vision slightly more askew than that which Mr. Waters brought to it. The long and the short of it is that Mr. Waters’ effort lacks a sense of real style, heart and soul. The visuals are nicely handled, yet there is generally no emotional punch behind them, no true sense of the fantastic that’s supposed to drive any good fantasy film. The director’s vision needs to carry everything, and it simply did not.
When the ball is dropped on the director’s level, it can affect the work of many others, and here it seems to have affected the score by James Horner (TITANIC, THE ROCKETEER) and even the editing by the solid Michael Kahn (just about anything Steven Spielberg’s directed). Both men have a history of much livelier work than was evidenced here. There were even moments in which one could sense that Kahn was cutting around footage to try to mask flat material. So, too, did Horner’s music lack a certain pizzazz. It worked nicely at times, yet seemed uninspired at other intervals.
Freddie Highmore (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, FINDING NEVERLAND), the young actor who played both Jared Grace and his brother, Simon, has in the past shown himself to be quite adept as an actor in both dramatic and fantasy-related material. Yet here, something felt off in his attitude and performance. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was playing a dual role with a brother that wasn’t really there, but much of that material felt pasted in. And I’m not referring to the visual effects. They were skillfully executed throughout. No, it was something more organic than that. There was also something about the way the audio mixing was handled for Simon’s voice that sometimes pulled me out of film—especially in an early scene in the boys’ bedroom. The whole thing began to feel rather technical. Looped dialogue appeared obvious, as did staging and pacing. It was almost as if everyone was too aware of what they were intending to accomplish.
Because film and literature are two different mediums, it isn’t really apropos to compare too closely one that’s based on the other, but I do think it’s fair to say that this short ninety-seven minute film is not truly capable of capturing the depth of imagination of Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black’s book series. The film’s plot does maintain much of the main elements found in the books, however. It involves a fatherless family that moves out of the city—because they can no longer afford living there sans dad—and into the big, old home of their great aunt, who is considered to be quite eccentric and had been placed in an asylum many years ago. Jared, as mentioned, is quite angry over his father no longer living with them and does not like the fact that mom has hauled them all away from the life they had previously known. He is also prone to exhibiting his anger through the act of hitting inanimate objects with sticks and the like. His brother is much more the pacifist with the kindly heart, and their sister, Mallory, as played by Sarah Bolger (STORMBRAKER, the TV mini-series STARDUST) fancies fencing and winds up using this key skill at various moments.
The lives of these three change in ways that they could never have imagined, for there is a magical—and sometimes dark—world around them that goes unseen by humans, unless it is otherwise wished by the inhabitants who dwell within it. Jared finds a “Field Guide” to Fairies that opens his mind and body to this world – one in which exist both good and bad fairies, as well as other magical creatures. The deepest darkness lies within an ogre and his minions, who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the field guide, written by the father of the kids’ great aunt, which holds the key to the destruction of the fairies and control of the magical world…and ultimately ours.
None of this makes all that much sense. Why would the inhabitants of such a fantastical world need to rely solely on information contained in a book written by an outsider to learn what needs to done in order to dominate their own environment? And wouldn’t the inhabitants of this world override our human environment to a large extent, given their rather unique abilities and desires? But the whole book thing is simply the MacGuffin (or McGuffin if you prefer), as Alfred Hitchcock would say. Essentially, it exists to give us something to tell the tale around. So admittedly, these questions are not important ones I suppose. Still, they did come to mind.
Personal disappointment aside, the film does contain moments of charm and style, but they are not enough to sustain the whole. I didn’t really dislike it as much as I was left detached from it. Unfortunately, where the books sweep one away on a magical journey, the film trips itself up by painting too much by the numbers.

THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (Feburary 14, 2008; 97 minutes). Directed by Mark Waters. Screenplay by John Sayles and Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum, based on the books by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black. Cast: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Sarah Bolger, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Seth Rogen, Martin Short.