February 18, 2008

Movie Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Last year Freddie Highmore starred in a film where he moves into an old relatives house in a remote location only to discover a magical world hidden all around him. In order to save his family, and unravel a mystery, he must journey into this hidden world and uncover its secrets. This year Freddie Highmore starred in a film where he moves into an old relatives house in a remote location only to discover a magical world hidden all around him. In order to save his family, and unravel a mystery, he must journey into this hidden world and uncover its secrets. Want to know the difference? One of them is actually magical and tells an involving story, while the other is just a narrative mess that goes nowhere and is less than interesting. The unsuccessful film was called Arthur and the Invisibles, while the successful one is the current matter of discussion, The Spiderwick Chronicles.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, from Nickelodeon Pictures, is based upon a series of novels from Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. It is a family-friendly fantasy that combines the coming of age elements found in films like last year's Bridge to Terabithia, with the fantasy sprung to life from the pages of a book aesthetic of films like The NeverEnding Story, while not feeling like a copy of either. Quite a feat in this day and age where everything seems to be a copy of everything else.

The film opens with the Grace family moving into the Spiderwick estate. It is a creepy rundown home in the middle of nowhere, and the only refuge for Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and her three children following a split with her husband. Besides the uprooting of the family, this change in locale and lifestyle is having an effect on the kids, twins Simon and Jared (Freddie Highmore in a dual role), and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Simon has become a pacifist and Mallory is attempting to be mature beyond her years, and then there is Jared.

Jared is taking the move very hard, and in turn is acting out. He is causing trouble while waiting for his father to come and take him back home. He is in the most need of some sort of help. However, help does not seem to be in the offing, that is until he discovers a hidden room in the house, which contains a book with a warning not to read it. Of course, no one is going to observe such a warning, much less a young boy looking to break a few rules.

The book is Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide. It is the culmination of a life's work, all of the knowledge about the magical creatures that live in the area around the house. No sooner does Jared crack the seal the book that he begins to see things and learn just what is going on here and just how important the book and its warning was.

Jared, along with his brother and sister, finds himself in the middle of a battle to protect the book from the evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). It is a battle that will test their resolve and forC them to come to terms with themselves and what they are capable of.

I am happy to report that while it is not perfect, The Spiderwick Chronicles tells an interesting story that has a distinct conclusion, is very entertaining, contains a healthy dose of childlike wonder, and delivers some genuine surprises along the way.

Director Mark Waters, having already left a mark on the tween-targeted cinema with Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, has turned his attentions towards family fantasy and proceeded to knock his first go-around out of the park. While this is, essentially, a kids film it does not pull its punches when it comes to showing the scary stuff. In short, The Spiderwick Chronicles is not sanitized for your protection, nor is it gratuitous. It is a film that does not shy away from the dark places the story takes you, and Waters is willing to let the film go to these places that bring the nightmares. At the same time, it is hopeful and empowering as the trio of heroes have to use everything at their disposal to outwit the creatures outside.

The screenplay from Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge), David Berenbaum (Elf), and John Sayles (Oscar nominee for Lone Star and Passion Fish) is a good piece of work. It mixes strong human drama with the fantastic in near perfect balance. I have not read the source to know how close they kept to it, but what I was hearing on the way out of the theater is that it did stray from the book, but that the kids still really enjoyed seeing it brought to life. In the end, isn't that the goal that was being sought?

The performances are also quite good, although there is one thing that I found mildly distracting. The Grace family is clearly American, but Jared/Simon have something of a hushed British accent. It was not too bad as the rest of the performance was spot on, I just don't think that Freddie Highmore can adequately cover his natural accent. Still, he is a very good young actor who hits the right notes of defiance, fright, and determination. As for the rest of the cast, they all do quite well in selling the fantasy.

What can I say? This movie really worked. The story holds together, the effects were more than adequate, and I was truly drawn into the story. I was held at attention as the wonders of the world revealed themselves to the audience and the characters. I was there when they ran from the goblins, when they first saw qhat they were up against, when their mother wouldn't believe them, as the answers slowly revealed themselves, and everything in between.

Bottomline. If you are looking for a thrilling ride that the whole family can go to, this is going to be for you. It is magical, thrilling, scary, funny, and whatever else you want to feel. It was, honestly, as big a surprise to me as Terabithia was last year, movies that target youngsters, but don't treat them like idiots. It is always a joy to discover a film that knows its audience and writes to their strengths.

Highly Recommended.


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