The Spiderwick Chronicles is this generation’s Neverending Story.
Many recent films aimed at kids and tweens have been book adaptations but this is not the reason for the above comparison. Rather, like the 80s classic, the children’s’ adventure begins with the warned-against reading of a book – a past time many kids no longer make time for between television and video games. Conversely, two significant differences between them are this story’s grounding in the real world and the impossibility of it ever being similarly viewed as a classic.
The Grace family, sans dad, has left New York for a large house out in the woods. As eldest Mallory (Sarah Bolger) continues the role of mini-mom and Simon (Freddie Highmore) accepts the changes with his typical passivity, his twin brother Jared (Highmore again) makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the situation, particularly around mom (Mary-Louise Parker). However, as strange things begin to occur around the house, Jared is instantly blamed. In an attempt to clear his name, he conducts his own investigation and discovers great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.
The film then becomes a string of successive encounters with mythical creatures: Thimbletack (Martin Short), a house brownie that turns into a boggart when angered and protector of the book; numerous goblins that resemble large toads; Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), a pig-like hobgoblin on a mission of revenge and lunch; and Molgarath (Nick Nolte), a large shape-shifting ogre that wants the book so he can destroy all the rest of the fairy-tale creatures.
Post meet-and-greet, Jared convinces his siblings of the reality of the unseen world and together they set out to uncover the book’s secrets and stop Molgarath. On the way, a sibling is injured, crazy Aunt Lucinda and Arthur Spiderwick are consulted, and good defeats evil. For those unfamiliar with the reading series, that’s the sum of all five volumes.
It is curious filmmakers would not try to turn this into a multi-film franchise like so many before it; but maybe they too recognized it did not have the sustainability of Harry Potter or Narnia. Spiderwick is cute, but at only 97 minutes it does not go much beyond that – from an adult perspective anyway; kids will find it exciting and, maybe, even a little frightening at times.
And as if it is a Nickelodeon contract clause, there is plenty of slime and green goo.
Highmore embarks on his most challenging role in a short yet widely successful career by taking on the parts of both twins. He successfully conveys each character’s distinct personality (with the help of wardrobe) even though his accent is still discernible under its American mask. Nonetheless, Rogen’s cowardly yet funny Hogsqueal is the highlight amongst the film’s characters.
The divorcing parents issue is always weighing in from under the surface if it is not already the focus of the scene; this is valuable but also a little tedious. Family and parental bonding are heralded in the film making it a good family pick but this is not going to be one of the fantasy films that appeal to all ages equally.