The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG for scary images and violence
Running time: 97 min.

Cast: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Jordy Benattar, Andrew McCarthy
Voices: Seth Rogen, Martin Short
Director: Mark Waters

Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles (based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black)
Review published June 26, 2008

Hollywood continues to dig in the fantasy-adventure mine for ideas, trying for the next Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but The Spiderwick Chronicles is just another in a growing series that come up short.  One thing I will give the film credit for is that it doesn't beef up the first entry in the book series, "The Field Guide", with lengthy action sequences in order to drag out the series for the maximum number of films possible.  Instead, it condenses all five books in the "Spiderwick Chronicles" series into one complete story arc, and does it without seeming as episodic as A Series of Unfortunate Events.  That the makers of the film do so at just a little over 90 minutes could be called the most commendable feat of all, if if didn't come at the expense of the set-up and epilogue, both of which director Mark Waters (Just Like Heaven, Mean Girls) is too impatient to deal with except in in a minimal fashion.

The story mostly revolves around two twins in the Grace family, Jared and Simon (both portrayed by Highmore, The Golden Compass), who, along with their older sister Mallory (Bolger, Stormbreaker) and mother Helen (Parker, Saved!), move into their inherited old rural house on the Spiderwick Estate in New England.  The house, which belonged to their great aunt Lucinda (Plowright, Bringing Down the House), is a fixer-upper to say the least, and further made creepy by weird sights, like an abundance of tomato sauce and sounds coming behind walls.  It's not long before Jared finds a sealed tome that contains a note which implores him not to open it, and, of course, he does immediately.  Through reading the contents, Jared discovers that his great great uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum), has spent his life cataloging the fanciful creatures and environs that only he could see.  One caveat: the book must be protected from the evil shape shifting beast Mulgorath (Nolte, Paris I Love You), who is Hell-bent on using the book as a means to destroy all the good creatures, including humans.

Although it contains some very impressive special effects, sometimes quite beautiful, The Spiderwick Chronicles is one of those children's fantasies that gets so caught up in getting right to the action that it skimps mightily on getting us prepared for the journey.  We aren't given much in terms of character development save for a few little tidbits that come into play later (Jared's impulsiveness, Simon's pacifism, Mallory's skills at fencing), and their reactions once things start getting bizarre asks a little too much in terms of plausibility.  If you have difficulty believing, as I did, that a series of bizarre and creepy occurrences could happen within a household without the new inhabitants clamoring to get out ASAP, it is going to be hard to stay on board with nearly everything that follows.  When Mallory wakes up screaming from her bed with her hair tied to various spots on the headboard, certainly that alone would be enough to justify a hasty departure from a haunted house, but the story necessitates they remain, so Jared is the convenient scapegoat. 

**SEMI-SPOILER ALERT! (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film and intend to): The ending of the film is particularly out of sorts, as these characters have just suffered through the most horrific events perhaps any humans may have ever experienced at the hands of the most evil threat to humanity and goodness the world has ever known.  In the aftermath of near-death conflicts with fiercely terrifying creatures, the family behaves as if it was just a bad day, carrying on a calm conversation without so much as an acknowledgement of the cataclysmic events that they've just experienced, literally minutes before. END SPOILERS**

The Spiderwick book that everyone is so keen on possessing has no title, but if it were to have one, it would probably be called, "The Book of Narrative Shortcuts and Plot Conveniences."  Whenever the book is consulted, there is always a ready solution to the prevailing predicament.  It's never really explained how Mulgorath could use the book to come to ultimate power, but I'm sure if the plot necessitated it, there would be a page called, "How to Destroy the Cheery World and Every Cute Creature on It."  You wouldn't think Arthur Spiderwick would even need to ever have such a book, as he practically spent every waking moment studying the fantasy creatures documented inside the small amount of pages, so he should know the contents backwards and forwards.  As the book is too dangerous to be put into the wrong hands, he certainly would never publish it, and didn't want anyone else to see it -- so why write it?  Because it's The Book of Narrative Shortcuts and Plot Conveniences!  It's a narrative shortcut and plot convenience in itself.

Despite the special effects quotient and James Horner's (Apocalypto, The Legend of Zorro) lovely score, The Spiderwick Chronicles falls short because, like so many recent family film fantasies, the creative minds behind the film think that if they don't give us spiffy creatures and action right away, we're going to be bored.  I think this is wrongheaded thinking all around.  By giving us background, fleshing out the characters, and making all of the plot developments plausible, we are much more likely to be taken in once the story delves into the fantasy elements, leading to excitement, intrigue and emotion -- three things the film so desperately needs to stand out in an already crowded marketplace.  The Spiderwick Chronicles isn't a story so much as a series of thinly-held-together eye candy distractions looking for something to make them meaningful.  Music and images might be enough to hold the attention of some, but once it's all over, you're not likely to think back to scenes of wonderment and evocative feeling you experienced, and certainly aren't left clamoring for more.   

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo