What kinds of magical creatures lived in your backyard as a child? Did you imagine any fantastic lands just beyond the next tree? The Spiderwick Chronicles (based on a series of kids’ books) is about Jared Grace (played by the ubiquitous Freddie Highmore) and his twin brother Simon (ditto re Highmore), and their sister and mom, who move from New York to the old small town home of their Aunt Lucinda. In no time, the precocious Jared discovers an old handwritten book called “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” written by Lucinda’s father before he mysteriously disappeared. By opening the book, Jared and his family are exposed to a world of goblins, pixies, trolls and fairies in the neighbouring woods and beyond. The book itself is also a target for Mulgarath, an evil ogre (and he ain’t no Shrek, I tell ya) who wants the book for its powerful secrets and is willing to kill the Graces to get it.
Spiderwick is a fun family fantasy film, the kind of movie that I expected when I went to see Bridge To Terabithia last year. The story is non-stop action, punctuated by a few tender family scenes where they deal with the fact that the parents have split up and Jared has some unresolved feelings about it. Another recent movie that’s a lot like Spiderwick is the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth. However, where Pan’s was definitely for adults, this movie is completely for the kids. Pan’s Labyrinth also dealt with the fantastic magical world in a child’s backyard, but there were a lot of dark themes and lots of grown-up violence. (Adults who like this kind of story should definitely check that one out as well.)
As for the wonders of Spiderwick, I’m almost tired of saying it, but the animated creatures are all very well done (by Industrial Light and Magic). I especially like the fairies (who are essentially humanized flowers) but they don’t make much of an appearance in the movie. For the most parts it’s the goblins who are the antagonists. In addition to the fantasy creatures, there was the added challenge of making Freddie Highmore appear as twins. Unlike those days when we saw a lot of the face-to-face split-screen conversations with one twin on the left facing the other twin on the right, camera and animation tricks have progressed to the point of making it seamless for an actor to speak to a duplicate of himself.
Highmore is well-cast as the main kids Jared (the hero) and Simon (the brainy pacifist). I think he always has a very believable and likeable quality that makes me seek out movies that he’s in (which is not something I do often with child actors). Also, the creature characters are pretty fun as well: Seth Rogen (of Knocked Up and Superbad fame) plays the voice of a hilarious hobgoblin called Hogsqueal, and Martin Short is the voice of Thimbletack a brownie/boggart ally who has anger-management issues and a serious jonesing for honey. There are a lot of elements to the fantasy world of this movie which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a fairy tale (along with some imaginatively humourous new additions such as the fact that goblins can be destroyed by tomato sauce). On the other hand, this movie is not bogged down with a lot of explication of rules or details. The good kids and their buddies have to stop the evil monster and his minions. I saw this movie in a whole theatre full of school kids and, like them, any kid that goes to see this movie will have a good time. As for us adults, Spiderwick has a lot of the wonder and charm that can be found in a nice fairy tale. If you have fond memories of those stories, this’ll be good for you too. (4.5 out of 5)
What if I’d made The Spiderwick Chronicles?
I would have improved the ending — not the good beats evil bit, but the warm fuzzy part when the music swells — it doesn’t focus on our main characters, so I was kind of wondering what the point of it was. Since there were issues with their family, it would have been much more satisfying if the ending of the movie was more about how the Graces were going to be happy.
I haven’t read the books yet, so I don’t know if the movie is just being true, but I would have made the story span a longer time period. It seems like the entire movie happens over a matter of two days (which is a bit unreal, even for a fantasy story).