This time last year, I reviewed “Bridge to Terabithia,” which I still think is one of the best movies for children that I’ve seen in some time. This doesn’t count “Ratatouille,” of course, but I figure that that movie is really more for everyone.
“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is in sort of the same vein as “Terabithia,” although it’s not nearly as good. That is, both movies deal with issues that a lot of kids have to deal with but that don’t make it into most family films because they seem too depressing. The main character in “Terabithia” was an alienated young boy who often gets picked on time at school. The main characters in “Spiderwick” are two twin boys (one of whom seemed pretty alienated to me) and their older sister who have just moved into a new house and are dealing with their parents’ separation. Of course, the biggest difference between those two films is that the fantasy elements in “Terabithia” were meant to be imaginary, while the ones in “Spiderwick” are real.
The twin boys, Jared and Simon Grace, are both played by Freddie Highmore, who played the titular character in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” as well as J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan in “Finding Neverland.” Highmore seems to be concentrating most of his acting abilities on Jared since he’s the character with the most complexity and the one who drives the action of the story. That isn’t to say that he isn’t convincing as the two characters. He does as good a job as any (save maybe Nicholas Cage in “Adaptation”) at playing doubles.
Jared is the more angst-ridden of the two boys. As the movie opens, he, his mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), and his siblings are preparing to move into an old, rickety family-owned house. It once belonged to Helen’s Aunt Lucinda, who is now in an institution. Jared is angry much the time, mostly because he’s certain that his mother is responsible for his father moving out. Helen is perpetually exasperated with Jared because he constantly acting out to express his hostility. Making things harder for Jared are Simon and his sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger from “In America”), who generally side with their mother, although they might or might not know extra details about their parents’ situation.
After moving into the house, Jared finds a book in the attic. There is a message on it warning him not to open it. So he does, of course. The book was written by Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn of “Good Night and Good Luck”) and documents dozens of races of fantastical creatures that are invisible to the human eye. The reason the book is dangerous is because it is the tool that the ogre Mulgarath needs to gain control of every living thing on the planet.
Jared soon meets a brownie named Thimbletack, who can become visible to humans at will. Thimbletack is furious when he finds out that Jared has opened the book and put everyone’s lives at risk. Soon there are plenty of goblins surrounding the safe haven of the house (Spiderwick created a protective circle around it), and they kidnap Simon instead of Jared by mistake. When Jared goes to rescue his brother, he meets a hobgoblin named Hogsqueal, who gives Jared the power to see all the creatures that are after him. After Simon is rescued, they convince their skeptical sister that they must do whatever they can to fight off the goblins and Mulgarath.
I haven’t read the books on which the movie is based, but the movie feels a little too derivative of other fantasy movies and books. I know that’s probably inevitable when it comes to this genre, but the film doesn’t offer us much to keep it fresh. Some of the creatures are interesting to look at, but most aren’t that fascinating. Many viewers may also grow tired of Thimbletack growing larger and turning green when he gets angry, as if he were the Incredible Hulk shrunk down to look like a leprechaun.
Still, a few of these characters at least have affable personalities thanks to the actors who have given them voices. Thimbletack is played by Martin Short with the high-pitched neuroticism that is his specialty. Hogsqueal is a fairly fun character, thanks to Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” Mulgarath can take on different forms and even appears as a human in one scene, which reveals that the character is played by Nick Nolte.
The biggest problem with the movie isn’t necessarily that the plot or the characters feel unoriginal, but that the stakes never quite feel high enough. Sure, we’re told that if Mulgarath gets hold of Spiderwick’s book, he will be able to control the world, but we never get a real sense of what that will mean or why he wants to do this. Maybe we’re expected to be satisfied with the fact that he is evil and that taking over the world is what all evil magical villains want to do.
Other than Nolte, who isn’t given all that much to do as the voice of Mulgarath, the movie boasts a couple of first class actors. Parker (“Angels in America,” “Weeds”) is immediately watchable in anything she does and plays mothers at their wits’ end as well as anyone. Strathairn is always good at playing very smart, and usually sympathetic supporting characters, and he brings that same quality to Spiderwick in the movie. However, their presence doesn’t quite elevate the material of the movie the way I would have hoped. I think part of this is because the director, Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday”) has trouble balancing the realistic parts of the story (the parents’ separation) with the overall fantasies. To his credit, though, these elements are at least played honestly by the cast and don’t feel manipulative the way they sometimes can in children’s films.
In the end, “Spiderwick” is a likable enough movie that many families may enjoy, but I doubt if it is likely to become a hugely successful franchise that Hollywood will need once the last two Harry Potter films have come and gone.
So there’s my review, but I’ll wrap up this week’s column by saying I hope no one lost any substantial bets based on my faulty predictions. If you count the two screenplay categories, I correctly guessed six out of the top eight categories, but that is certainly not my best. Even though I was a little unsure of the supporting actress category last week, I still turned out to be dead wrong, since Tilda Swinton won for “Michael Clayton.” To be fair, though, even George Clooney got that one wrong last week on Time magazine’s Web site. Julie Christie did not win the award for leading actress, with that one going to Marion Cotillard for “La Vie En Rose.” I was sure that she would be the most likely one to beat Christie, but it still counts as wrong. However, I was correct in my predictions for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and both screenplay categories. I can’t pat myself on the back too much, though, because almost any serious Oscar watcher would probably have made the same choices in those categories.
“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is rated PG: Parental guidance suggested.