"There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
It's not so very, very far away;
You pass the gardner's shed and you just keep straight ahead--
I do so hope they've really come to stay...."
--Rose Fyleman (1877-1957)
If you're hoping to do a best-selling children's series of fantasy books, it helps to have "Chronicles" somewhere in the title, and the word "Spider" helps, too, as it conjures up all sorts of nasty, hairy, multi-legged creatures. That's what Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi probably figured when they began their best-selling book series, "The Spiderwick Chronicles," and it worked out pretty well.
Of course, "The Spiderwick" tales are more exciting and adventurous than anything dear, sweet Ms. Fyleman ever wrote all those many years ago, but the Black-DiTerlizzi books probably took some inspiration there. The "Spiderwick" stories are imaginative fun, derivative, to be sure, but amusing and entertaining and just a little bit scary by turns, at least for kids.
The only minor fly in the ointment is that the 2008 "Spiderwick Chronicles" movie is not quite as magical for grown-ups as it might be. Unlike "Stardust" and "The Lord of the Rings," which were fantasies for adults that children could enjoy, or "Enchanted" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," which were fantasies for children that adults could enjoy, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is more or less geared for children, period. Not that oldsters can't enjoy it, too; they just might not find it quite as sophisticated as they'd like.
Given that the authors and filmmakers aimed "The Spiderwick Chronicles" mainly at children, it isn't so important that it be entirely original. The fact is, the movie hasn't an original bone in its body, which is neither here nor there insofar as it might concern kids. Unless they've grown up on a steady diet of fantasy, most of what goes on in "Spiderwick" will seem new and fresh. Or it will seem only vaguely like stories they've read or seen before.
Here's the familiar setup: a mother, deciding to start life over after her husband leaves her, takes her young twin sons and teen-aged daughter to live in a big, old, spooky-looking house in the country (a house that intentionally reminds one of the Addams family mansion). The house used to belong to the children's great, great uncle, Arthur Spiderwick, who disappeared mysteriously some eighty years before. According to Spiderwick's daughter, sylphs came and carried him off to a mysterious land to protect him. Not surprisingly, the authorities carted the daughter off to a sanitorium, where she's been residing ever since.
Not more than a few minutes after being in the house, one of the twins discovers noises in the walls, along with personal items going missing. After that, he finds his uncle's old journal, "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You," and begins reading it. There, he discovers that his uncle learned how to view and contact the unseen creatures of the woods--the sprites, goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, trolls, fairies, boggarts, griffins, sylphs, and other such beings. Worse, he learns that the king of the goblins is out to get the "Field Guide" because learning its secrets will enable him to rule the world!
It isn't long before the whole family become involved up to their eyebrows in conflict with the mystical entities.
The family are the Graces, and they are the stereotypes you'd expect in such a story. The mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), is edgy and upset at her husband leaving her. She just wants to get as far away from him as possible, even though the children want them to get back together. Naturally, she refuses to believe anything the kids tell her about goblins and such and comes off as a typically uncaring adult who refuses to listen to her kids. Young audiences will empathize.
The twins, Simon and Jared (Freddie Highmore of "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" playing both roles) are opposites of one another. Simon is sweet and gentle and distant and intellectual. He says he's a pacificist, and he's the darling of the family. Jared is angry, outgoing, and always getting into trouble. When things start disappearing, he's the one the others blame. He's also the main character in the story, and we can see where this is going. Highmore does a good job portraying the contrary personalities.
The teenage daughter, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), is several years older than the twins and won't let them forget it. She's a know-it-all, above childish things, and wants as little to do with her brothers as possible. She also studies fencing, which comes in handy as the story progresses.
The father, Richard (Andrew McCarthy), we hardly ever see, but the children refer to him often. OK, you can see where this is heading, too. A monumental strife must bring the family together, since as we all know from our own moviegoing experiences, it is only by working together on huge problems that characters come to know and love each other. And so it goes.
Several other big-name actors fill out supporting roles. David Strathairn plays the eccentric Arthur Spiderwick, partly in flashback, partly in the Kingdom of Fairie. He's always fun to be with but seems slightly ill at ease in the role. Nick Nolte plays Mulgarath, the ogre who rules the Goblin Kingdom, and, frankly, we don't see enough of him. Martin Short and Seth Rogen voice the CGI creatures Thimbletack and Hogsqueal, names right out of the J.K. Rowling handbook of giddy appellations.
For me, though, the standout is Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda, Arthur Spiderwick's daughter, now eighty-seven years old and living in what the kids call a "nut house." When she's on-screen, which is all too little, the whole movie springs to life with her casual and endearing grace.
There are some exciting and even frightening parts to "The Spiderwick Chronicles," maybe more so for youngsters than for adults, which go far in carrying the action along at a steady pace. More important, there are some touching scenes as well, which help temper the narration and ensure that this isn't just another juvenile fantasy/action movie.
It takes a while before the appearance of the first fantastical creature, but when we first see Thimbletack, it is magical, indeed. James Horner's appropriately gentle and heroic musical score (a score that never gets too drippy, by the way) supports things along the way, as does Industrial Light & Magic's creature-design team.
Department of Useless Information: Tomato juice kills goblins. You never know when that will come in handy; but, remember, goblins are stupid creatures and relentless, so don't get overconfident. Of more importance, the movie is 97 minutes long, not 101 minutes as the keep case announces. And according to IMDb, there is a 107-minute unrated version available someplace. Just not here.
The video quality impressed me throughout, starting with the wide, 2.35:1 screen ratio. I liked the colors, deep and robust yet perfectly realistic. I also liked the object delineation, better than average for a standard-definition release, perhaps a tad soft at times but usually showing little to no color bleed-through. Dark scenes are not always as revealing as they could be, and one can easily see a natural print grain, but the latter is something we should expect and welcome.
As befitting a fantasy film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does its best to provide a multitude of surround effects, starting with the sounds of the woods, crickets, wind, and the rustle of leaves. Then it really gets moving with all the things that go bump in the night emanating from just about everywhere in the listening area. These are not overly prominent, obvious sounds, but they are subtly convincing. There is also a taut bass, not particularly deep but displaying a strong impact.
Disc one of this Special Two-Disc Field Guide Edition contains the feature film and several shorter bonus items. First, there's the seven-minute featurette, "Spiderwick: It's All True!" in which the director introduces us to the field guide and the fantastical creatures of the story. Next, there is the nine-minute featurette, "It's a Spiderwick World!" in which the books' authors explain where they got their story ideas. Third, there's "Arthur Spiderwick"s Field Guide," wherein you can click on each of the magical creatures and get text descriptions, as well as a look at them from the movie. Then, there's a "Field Guide In-Movie Mode," where a "Field-Guide" icon appears periodically throughout the film to provide more information about the story's creatures and lore.
The extras on disc one conclude with a brief series of previews of other Paramount children's films; twelve scene selections but no chapter insert; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Disc two begins with the longest featurette in the set, the twenty-one-minute "Spiderwick: Meet the Clan!" Here we meet the various cast members and get some behind-the-scenes peeks at why the filmmakers chose them and how the cast prepared for their roles. Of course, the director cannot help himself from referring to the story as a "Hero's Journey," and thank you Joseph Campbell. Next up is the fourteen-minute featurette "Making Spiderwick!" in which we learn more about the sets, costumes, and locations of the "Spiderwick" world. Following that is the fourteen-minute featurette "The Magic of Spiderwick!" about the CGI animation in the film. Then the director returns for a quick, two-minute summing up in "A Final Word of Advice..." The bonus materials conclude with four deleted scenes, totaling about eight minutes, nine TV spots, and two widescreen theatrical trailers.
The two discs come housed in a double keep case, further enclosed in an attractive slipcover that simulates "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide," complete with clasp.
As I've said, the authors and filmmakers have geared "The Spiderwick Chronicles" primarily for children, and as such the movie seems to me quite effective. There may be a few scenes that are a bit intense for the youngest audience members, but overall it should please kids well enough. For adults, the movie can work, too. Although it's not particularly innovative, it is long on charm, which should carry it a ways with many older folk. I enjoyed it each of the times I saw it, starting with its theatrical run, but maybe I'm still a kid.