Although director Mark Waters may not seem like the perfect choice to helm an fx-laden fantasy opus, the mind behind the Freaky Friday remake and, more importantly, Mean Girls, has an ability to tap into the darker spirit of a given scenario and spin out a little more tension and edge than a dozen or so others who would have jumped at the chance to hurl a big budget adaptation of Holly Black's and Tony DiTerlizzi's popular series of childrens' books up onto the big screen. But the ace up his sleeve is in bringing on board the cult-favourite screen-scribe John (Piranha, The Howling) Sayles to have a hand in the streamlining of what is, in actual fact, elements of several entries in the literary franchise down into one coherent movie. With the lion's share of the screenplay written by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum, the tale of two twin brothers, Jared and Simon Grace (both played by Freddie Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) moving into their ancestral home in the woods with their mother, played by Mary Louise Parker, and stumbling across the hidden world of faerie that surrounds them, with all its wonders and terrors, Spiderwick is firmly rooted in the conventions of the genre. But it is probably Sayles who adds a little bit of bite to the messy divorce that the family is undergoing and the rift that is developing between Jarod, who doesn't know the full details of why his father isn't coming with them, and his wits-end mother. However, the film is not essentially concerned with the troubles of new homes, new jobs and dysfunctional relationships.
Spiderwick is about goblins and ogres, circles of safety, honey-slurping Boggarts and flying griffins, and a book that details the innermost secrets of this previously hidden realm, a book prosaically entitled Field Guide To The Fantastical World Around You, that was inked and illustrated by the kids' great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) before he mysteriously disappeared eighty years previously. Troubled Jarod, with a track record of pranks and mischief, naturally finds it hard to convince anybody that the strange occurrences they experience from the moment they arrive in the creepy old mansion - items being snatched, noises in the walls, his sister tied to her bed with the knots of her own hair and, above all else, scratched warnings that they should leave, etc - are down to imps and brownies. Discovering a secret room via a spooky old dumb-waiter, Jarod happens upon the book and, ignoring a message that tells him not to open and read it, voraciously does just that and unwittingly arouses the fervent interests of the nasty ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte in its human guise) and his band of squat, toothy goblins to its presence. Mulgarath, in time-honoured fashion needs the book, or rather the information packed into its pages that Arthur Spiderwick dedicated his life to gathering about his ethereal neighbours, in order to gain control of - you guessed it - the worlds of both faerie and human kind. In swift order, poor, sensible Simon is snatched and dragged off into the woods, the devoted (but brittle and unpredictable) brownie/boggart Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) informs Jarod of the peril they face, former prisoner of the goblin tribe Hogsqueal (a pig-facd hobgoblin, himself) spits magic gunk in the kids' eyes and the real dangers in the woods are vividly revealed with snarling attacks on the house, frantic chases down cobwebbed tunnels and mystical enchanted battles. As if moving house wasn't stressful enough!
A bit of a heavy-hitter with exposition - some lines early on will really make those sensitive to such screenplay-shortcuts cringe - Spiderwick isn't the best at structuring its plot. But then, as an adaptation of a children's book and scripted primarily for children, this is a necessary evil. Everything is dealt with in nice, informative nuggets and if the story actually seems surprisingly limited in locations, themes and motives, it still thunders along with a seriously wacky pace and, thanks possibly to Sayles again, a real hint of jeopardy and violence. We are left under no illusion that Mulgarath wants to kill the kids and the sight of a gaggle of gurning goblins loitering about the dubious perimeter defence of a ring of potion-grown mushrooms is an ever-constant threat. A vicious bite on a leg also raises the bar somewhat and even Thimbletack's honey-withdrawn tantrums can be quite tasty - his defence of the book, whilst transformed into his mini-Hulk state, is fairly in-your-face and, if anything, he looks even nastier than the goblins do when he is in his “green” phase.
Freddie Highmore - who I last saw as being the only worthwhile ingredient in August Rush (reviewed recently) - does another fine job here. In fact, you could say that he does two fine jobs. Having him play the twins could have ended up as daftly moronic as, say, Van Damme's efforts, but Highmore enables both characters some distinct separation and three-dimensionality. They're not particularly realistic - one conventional, nice and easygoing, the other a bitter, self-empowered and self-imposed outcast - but their narrative spectrum ends mean that Highmore can test his acting chops with two personalities in one movie. The effect of the two Highmores in the one frame is never a distraction either, which is a blessing when you consider how ham-fisted this type of screen-sharing could have ended up. Even if his Jarod incarnation eats up the majority of the twins' screen-time, you are still completely taken in by that fact that there are two characters here. The sparky relationship with Mallory is perfunctory at best - snide comments and flash-in-the-pan arguments - but the familiar arc of learning respect and trust for one-another is dutifully played out, nonetheless. The inclusion of Arthur Spidwerwick's own daughter, Lucy (played delightfully by a powder-and-pastry-faced Joan Plowright), now aged and languishing in a rest-home, adds a neat and somewhat mournful spin on the proceedings that, although somewhat patronising and sentimental, did bring a small but pesky lump to my throat come the slightly too neatly tied-up finale.
Effects-wise, Spiderwick has quite a few creations. The goblins, at first, I thought were a little disappointing. Short, floor-hugging beasties with wild mouths and a playful little bouncing motion, they didn't seem as threatening as I'd hoped. Yet once they amass and pursue their young quarry with wicked glee, bumbling like spiky tumbleweeds through the undergrowth, they gain an ominous malevolence that is hard not to shudder at. Mulgarath's chief lieutenant is a tad too derivative, however, looking like a cross between a toad and Obi-Wan's waddling chum, the prospector-cum-diner-proprietor Dex from Attack Of The Clones. A small degree of individuality is handed out to them, in the form of rags, sticks, tunics and hats, but on the whole, they would have been a much more intimidating mob if the goblins had been a bit more in the style of those from Ridley Scott's Legend. Mulgarath, unseen in his full ogre-form until the end of the film, is actually quite impressive though, and suitably demonic and powerful. A nice touch is the horribly devious -looking yellow eyes that he has whilst in his brief Nick Nolte appearance, too. The CG for Thimbletack in his brownie form is pretty lacklustre, I'm afraid. We see him hopping, dancing and rushing about from shelf to shelf, performing highly animated jigs and a Tarzan-style swing through the air, but I found his motion far too weightless and unconvincing. He is, however, much better in his angry Boggart alter-ego. Still, on the whole, the critters in Spiderwick - including some gaily picturesque pixies and sprites who, thankfully, don't get their heads bitten off a la Pan's Labyrinth, and a large, swooping griffin who, to be honest, seems a tad too convenient for the plot - make for a delightfully detailed little world of barely glimpsed horror and splendour.
Another great element that helps to sweep you up in the adventure is the terrific score from James Horner (a full of review of which is on the way), that breaks with his own traditions whilst still adhering to the thematic template that has been his mainstay for many years now. Driving, dark aggression works wonders with the thrilling aspects of the story, bringing forth a rich, textured wall of sound that underscores the danger wonderfully. But it is his simply gorgeous, lush strings and dense harmonies that stand out, delivering depths of emotion that the performances really only hint at. But this is Horner's speciality, folks. As a major fan of his work - as self-plagiarising as it so often is - this score is one of his best in recent years and really bolsters Spiderwick's story of awe and magic.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is an extremely enjoyable, if overly familiar, romp through dark fantasy-land. There are nods to Jumanji, Labyrinth and, with its timeless ode to children discovering new dimensions and finding courage and maturity in the process, those other chronicles, the Narnian ones. Quite intense at times, so the littlest ones in the audience should be warned, and cheerfully nasty in its depiction of the curmudgeonly forest dwellers, Waters' film gently nudges the atmosphere of cosy kids' whimsy into more agreeably sinister territory that means grownups' eyes may widen as much their charges' do. Some episodes may lack vigour by sheer virtue of having been done more successfully before - the griffin flight can't help but lose out to similar scenes in the likes of Harry Potter - and the film may have benefited from a larger scope to really ram the threatening implications of ogre-rule home. As it turns out, the whole thing feels quite restricted to its charming New England setting, despite some snow-capped peaks and mystical time-removed glens cropping up during one very shoe-horned sequence. But, on the whole, this is great entertainment and knocks the charmless The Golden Compass into a goblin's slimy hat.
Well recommended for kids of all ages and for those who may find Horton Hears A Who too ... well ... nice.
Details of the picture and sound treats on offer can be found in the verdict.
Colours are good and strong - check out the sprites arising from the flowers - with an autumnal cast and the 2.35:1 image looks appreciably wide and spacious, with some great forest shots and a dynamic impression lent during the moment when Jarod and Mallory stand on the roof and look down upon an army of goblins surrounding the house. Detail is high, too. Foliage and bric-a-brac on the dusty shelves is clear and the imagery on the pages of the book comes across well. Detail on the CG creatures is good, too. As I've said these aren't the best creations around, but in an organically likeable fashion, the imagery is delightfully presented, just the same.
This should still be something to savour on Blu-ray and I look forward to seeing how well the clouds of faerie-folk are captured in 1080p.
Having said this, though, Spiderwick does have a wide and lush soundfield that is full of nuance, ambience, subtlety and dynamics. Smaller details can certainly be picked up - the scampering of feet through leaves, the turning of a key in a lock, the hubbub of goblin voices in the distance - and this is something that I will be looking forward to hearing at home on my set-up. One element that is not overlooked is the placement of James Horner's exquisite score - quite my favourite of the last month or so - and the intricacies of his compositions and instruments was something that I was deliberately listening out for. The use of bells and chimes - reminiscent of his score for Glory in places - comes over well, and the sheer denseness of his layered music feels weighty, warm and majestic.
Overall, Spiderwick sounds great but does so, at the screening I saw at least, without true distinctionDefinitely worth checking out, The Spiderwicke Chronicles dallies with darkness and has an agreeable nasty edge that kids and grownups will enjoy. I may have been somewhat remotely reminded of 80's cult films The Gate and The Goonies at times, but this is still a very creditable entry in an already crowded genre. The effects may not be the best around, but they are certainly good enough to charm and excite in equal measure and the performance from Freddie Highmore is energetic and likeable, even if the rest of the cast have a tendency merely to go by the numbers.
It is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, and it does little that is new. But it still feels refreshing and engaging enough to make this viewer, at least, look forward to seeing it again on Blu-ray. Thus, it comes warmly recommended, folks.
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