Dir: Mark Waters, 2008, US
In The Spiderwick Chronicles the Grace family find trouble when they move into their creaky New England home - and it isn't trouble with the mortgage. The house smells strange and creatures are heard moving behind the walls.
Mark Waters's film is the adaptation of the popular book series by written by Holly Black and illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi. The Spiderwick books are not a Harry Potter franchise, and this movie won't reach the vast audience of the Potter films, but the books' young readers and their families (and many Harry Potter fans) will surely give this one a try, and then probably buy the DVD. The books' popularity will boost foreign sales, as will Paramount's marketing heft. Nickelodeon will surely find the largest audience for the film on cable television.
After moving in, young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) begins investigating, when he's not complaining to his mother, fighting with his sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) or his brother Simon (Highmore), or wondering when his father will return to the family.
The adventures begin when Jared takes the rusty dumbwaiter to the rooms upstairs. There he finds the empty office of Arthur Spiderwick (David Straithairn), who has apparently disappeared. Jared finds Spiderwick's book, which tells the story of the mysterious surroundings. He is interrupted by a temperamental goblin, Thimblewick (spoken by Martin Short), who warns him that the book is sought by the local villain, Mulgarath (Nick Nolte).
In Mulgarath's service is a small army of goblins that look like horned toads, who are invisible, like all the goblins, unless you look at them through a magical stone, or if a friendly hobgoblin, Hogsqueal, spits in heir faces. Protected from the goblins by a ring of stones that surround the house, Jared fights Mulgarath's monsters and learns the fate of his great-great uncle Spiderwick and the man's daughter, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), now an octogenarian in a nursing home.
The stories of the Grace and Spiderwick families intertwine as the movie unfolds, culminating in a battle for the book and the estate.
For all this fantasy, the look of The Spiderwick Chronicles directed by Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) rarely rises above standard family drama fare and the script by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum and John Sayles struggles to compress a wealth of colour, character and detail from the books. The family story plays so heavily on fighting between Jared and his siblings that it grates on you as you watch.
Yet the effects by Industrial Light and Magic and Tippett Studio can be charming, starting with Thimblewick, the mercurial upstairs goblin, who is as neurotic as the house is haunted. Hogsqueal, spoken by Seth Rogen, is a grotesque arboreal pig with a taste for birds, imaginatively conceived and realized. When Jared travels to a distant place where Arthur Spiderwick has taken refuge (without aging), that sanctum is populated by dandelion-like flower sprites, which are rendered in shimmering detail. They are some of the film's truly inventive visual flourishes.
Spiderwick's problem is not its effects, but its live action. With the exception of Martin Short and Seth Rogen, these are not actors or characters toward which you are drawn.
Freddie Highmore does a competent job with two characters (although Simon the second brother, couldn't be more one-dimensional), yet he's far more appealing as British than as a quarrelsome American boy. He was much more fun in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sarah Bolger has a magnetic young beauty, but she and the rest of the live-action cast bring far less to the drama than what was already in the books to start.
The Kennedy/Marshall Compan
Mark Canton Productions
The Gotham Group
Based on the Books by
Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
Special Visual Effects
Industrial Light & Magic