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February 15, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | February 15, 2008 |

Of all the recent cinematic conversions of children’s fantasy, The Spiderwick Chronicles stood the greatest chance of success. Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s five bite-size books, all magic and exigencies, could easily be crammed into one film, skirting the expositional problems of The Golden Compass via a smaller story and tighter focus. And give Nickelodeon credit, because they got the basics right; the film isn’t quite stupendous, but it doesn’t have anything out of place. This is a good flick which should thrill younglings rather than belittle them, while not alienating the adults in tow.

The Grace family has just moved from urban New York to suburban Somewhere. Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has just separated from Papa Grace and is relocating, with three kids to her Aunt’s abandoned manse. Mallory (Sarah Bolger), the take-charge older sister, and bookish Simon (Freddie Highmore) are supportive, taking events in stride, while Jared (Highmore part deux) resents both the separation from his father and the relocation. Jared is purportedly a reckless kid, quick to anger and obstinacy, but Highmore never quite relays the energy of a defiant pre-teen; his rage is too muted, perhaps in part because his effort to hide an English accent renders his speech a bit stilted. He’s much more at home playing Simon, the quiet, less emotional twin. Still, if his performance isn’t zealous, Highmore at least lacks the self-consciousness bedeviling actors twice his age; he’s perfectly serviceable in two roles, as are Bolger and Parker, who seems to have made a niche for herself as a wearied mother (and is hot).

Jared, amid spells of combativeness, stumbles onto some of the house’s bizarre secrets — a hidden attic contains a book: “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” which gives scientific descriptions of fairies, goblins, and a host of magical doodads that just might explain the rather crazy shit that’s been happening around the house. Though Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short), the hyperactive brownie charged with guarding the book, warns Jared, he opens the book and sets off a calamitous chain of events.

A wrathful ogre named Mulgarath (sometimes played, sometimes voiced, by Nick Nolte), will evidently stop at nothing to pilfer the book’s secrets, and so sets off a horde of goblins to attack the house and its inhabitants. The fantastical creatures are one of the strongest elements in Spiderwick; these aren’t just cartoons to be laughed at or knocked aside, these are genuinely dangerous things that bite and scratch and draw actual blood. Come to that, there’s actually a surprising amount of violence in the film, both toward critters and humans. To boot, they’re rendered well by computer imagery, using realistic modes (most of the creatures look reptilian, if nothing else) as opposed to the far-fetched. The violence may surprise younger viewers, but it gives a nice immediacy to the plot, and I’m of the opinion that when a film is more likely to scare the kiddies, it’s less likely to patronize them.

There’s plenty of urgency in The Spiderwick Chronicles to give the movie an engaging clip, and the story’s absence of “high” fantasy should keep the uninitiated from being bored. The human subtext — Jared’s embittered relationship with an absent father — is never more than predictable, but it still works in context. Like I said, this is a film which works well with low-expectations and doesn’t wreck higher ones. Even the suckers who aren’t twitterpated by magical intrigue like myself should find this a grand diversion.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and is a sucker for children’s lit.

Psycho Goblin. Qu'est-ce que c'est?

The Spiderwick Chronicles / Phillip Stephens

Film | February 15, 2008 |

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