The Spiderwick Chronicles is based on the series of books of the same name written by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. It has to be said that the basic premise of the story really is quite simple and truth be told the haunted house scenario is the kind of story that's been told many, many times over. Family moves into new house, something not quite right about it, children discover spooky goings on, roll forth a fantasy film for children. In many instances a blandly formulated recipe such as this is surely destined for mainstream mediocrity? Could there possibly be a saving grace that may raise it out of mediocre obscurity?
The Spiderwick Estate has a vaguely interesting history behind it which forms the crux of the story. Eighty years earlier, Arthur Spiderwick had written a book called “Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World around You”. It was a lifetime's worth of work encapsulated within a single book identifying the world of the invisible supernatural inhabitants that surrounded the estate and the secrets to their existence. Unwittingly by writing the book and combining all the facts in such a singular manner, the field guide exposed all of the inhabitants of this fantastical world to the very dangers dwelling within it. In short the field guide in the wrong hands spells disaster; the wrong hands in this case being the evil ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte).
Forced to move out of New York due to a marriage break-up, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) has to then take her three children to the Spiderwick Estate. The estate is far removed from the hub-bub of New York City and was once a home to their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Straithairn) and his daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright). It's been lying vacant ever since their Aunt Lucinda was 'institutionalised'. Rumours of some rather weird and wacky instances at Spiderwick had been abounding over a long period of time and apparently all these funny goings on were enough to have driven Aunt Lucinda a bit cuckoo.
In true stereotypical form, the house in question is an old mansion (think Psycho and Amityville) has been untouched for many a while and is set in grounds within a mysterious wood. All of this is textbook storytelling and brought to screen through straightforward modern day filmmaking. It all feels rather too bland and familiar to be anything other than a run of the mill children's fantasy movie. Mark Waters who previously directed Freaky Friday and Mean Girls leads this one very efficiently in what is quite a concise and predictable manner. Flashbacks of Jumanji, Zathura, Labyrinth and even Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist amongst many others come to mind and glimpses are all evident in the mix here. Unfortunately there is little by way of originality that Spiderwick can offer over others in its peer group.
Ok so before we go any further let's get some structure here. The three young children are the twin boys Jared and Simon Grace (Freddie Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). The brother-sister relationship has some friction, as you'd expect nothing new here and Jared is treated as the ultra-sensitive one of the family. Even though he has a twin in Simon, Jared finds accepting his new life harder without his father being around. Freddie Highmore plays the part of both the boys and pulls off what is quite a remarkable achievement from someone so young. The sensitivity required in playing both characters is certainly challenging but he pulls the offset off with aplomb. You really do feel that they are two different people acting out the roles. Highmore, however is saved from developing a split personality disorder as it isn't long before Jared becomes the central character of the movie.
Now, the children as you've probably already gathered are not too keen on having had to move but needs must. Not being overly taken in by their new abode is unsetting and upsetting for them and it isn't long before things start to go missing in the house and the arguments begin. A few odd pranks and here and there, a few inconveniently missing items and it's not long before Jared is blamed by everyone for all the oddities. Mark Waters certainly keeps the movie moving along swiftly and dwells little on the finer details with the resultant story unfolding very fluidly.
It isn't then long after that the young Jared starts to hear odd sounds in the house which then leads him to discover a secret disused study room. What adults and elders would merely dismiss as no bother, ever seems to capture children's inquisitive nature more so. Waters plays on this with immediacy and never lets it go throughout the movie. If anything it does provide a draw for the children watching the movie.
Having a gander around the study, Jared feels that he is not alone in there. Whilst exploring he finds a dusty trunk which on opening then finds “Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World around You”. Simply by opening and beginning to read the book Jared inadvertently sets off a string of supernatural events that will lead to some pretty unfortunate circumstances. Unbeknown to him, the consequences will need to be appropriately dealt with. Welcome Jared Grace to the fantastical invisible world around you.
What follows is a crash course in fairies, goblins and a whole manner of mystical creatures. It's at this point I felt that the film started to gain some momentum in possibly moving it slightly ahead of the norm in this genre. Don't get me wrong, there was never going to be enough on offer here to differentiate it from what you get in this genre but it does do well to hang together in a far more elevated form to what I was expecting. The CGI is used in a competent manner and the interaction of the creatures with the humans is well enacted. Whilst the technical delivery of the CGI is commendable it is more so the child actors that interact in what would have simply been a blue screen scenario for them, that really pull it off.
Now the first of Jared's fantastical encounters is a Brownie by the name of Thimbletack (voice over by Martin Short). A Brownie is a kind of good house fairy that has a penchant for honey and crackers. Yes, a strange fairy indeed! Apparently we are led to believe that every house has one. Stranger still, if agitated a Brownie will bloat up into twice its size into what becomes quite an aggressive creature called a Boggart. It's then when the honey comes in very handy to help appease the poor little blighter! Furthermore, a Brownie is actually totally invisible though should it choose to it ican reveal itself to humans. It is the only creature of the fantastical world that can actually do this. Thimbletack obviously has to reveal himself to Jared to show him the error of his ways and what now lies ahead and in-store for him.
Not having read the book I understand that Mark Waters onscreen version is not a literal uplift from the novels. Some fans of the novels have complained that many characters have been omitted and that the film is not as true to the story as it maybe should have been. Whilst I don't have a comparative to make on the omissions on that front, I did feel that the movie assumed much from scene to scene from this point onwards. The introduction of characters is thick and fast and the movie jumps and jolts along. Although to be fair, in a sense it does flow but never feels as seamless as it maybe possibly could have been.
Jared now in possession of a 'seeing stone' courtesy of Thimbletack is now able to see all the invisible inhabitants around him. Next up is a Hobgoblin by the name of Hogsqueal (voice over by Seth Rogen). Goblins are evil creatures but a Hobgoblin (who love to eat birds) is a goodie to have on your side. Hogsqueal fills Jared in on who the baddies are, generally being all the goblins that dwell in the wood. The worst and most feared of all the baddies is the evil Mulagarath, who is a rather strange 10ft tall shape shifting ogre. Mulgarath's one desire is to get a hold of Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide. The knowledge of all the secrets will allow him to have the power to wipe out all the creatures in the fantastical world.
The story is self explanatory hence forth. On one side you have Mulgarath and his army of goblins led by a rather numpty general by the name of Redcap. On the other you have the three Grace children, Thimbletack and Hogsqueal. It's a rather strange and wonderfully colourful conflict. The fantasy element within the story definitely feels surreal, yet it's broadly accessible and entertaining enough. There are a host of other characters and creatures that are introduced in quick succession of each other such as a Troll, Byron the Griffin, Flower Sprites and the Sylph. The creatures are not as developed as those say for example as in the Harry Potter series. The introductions are extremely brief and as a consequence the more 'evil' characters retain enough of the 'dark' about them to probably keep the younger viewers awake all night afterwards. I would say children will feel enchanted by Spiderwick yet may possibly feel slightly terrified at the same time.
There's little more to dwell on the intricacies of the story without spoiling the fantasy on offer but in summary it's a classic Good vs Evil - whoops let's get it back into the box story. At times it feels a little rushed but the whole thing does retain a whimsical structure that will appeal to both adults and children alike. If I'm completely honest it's not an encapsulating story in film form as others of this ilk have been. Whilst I did have some reservations about Spiderwick before I watched it, I also have to hold my hands up and say that most of these were dispelled by the end. I was pleasantly entertained for 90mins or so as I'm sure both you and your children will be.
Our Review Ethos