Paramount Pictures, PG
written by: Holly Black, Tony Diterlizzi, Karey Kirkpatrick
directed by: Mark Waters
starring: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Martin Short, Nick Nolte, Seth Rogen, Andrew McCarthy
When you’re the parent of a third-grader with ADHD you come to appreciate books like The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black. Because of the attention issues, she has to read a lot just to maintain herself at grade level. And at the third grade level (especially when you have to read book that have special “AR tests,” the selection can be a little disappointing. And since we end up reading a lot of them together, I love it when we find a series of books that doesn’t bore me as well as her. She’s not ready for Harry Potter yet, so The Spiderwick Chronicles was a godsend (Thanks, Mrs. Evans for suggesting them!). They’re well-written, the characters are interesting and conflicted, and the adults, while clueless for part of the plot, do NOT act like idiots just so the kids heroes can be … well, kid heroes. Plus, as the father of a daughter, I appreciate it when we run across girl heroes that exhibit brains and brawn, and you’d have a hard time finding a better girl hero than Mallory Grace (but more on that later). Actually, you’d have a hard time finding a better hero than Mallory Grace, regardless of gender. That’s refreshing.
My son, also, fell in love with story. He can’t read yet, but he loved the pictures, and would sit while we read aloud. When he first started seeing commercials for this movies, he was probably the most excited of all of us. I was a little afraid, actually. Most of the time movies get these things wrong. I know things need to change. For a five-book series, plot must be compressed to fit into a two-hour movie. The Bridge to Terabithia and the Harry Potter movies mostly got these things right. The Seeker (from the Dark is Rising Books) pissed all over the concept and made a lot of fans really mad. Where would Spiderwick fall on this line?
What works: Nearly everything. This is a great film, not just a great kids movie. If you like kids adventure films (by that I mean adventure films with kids as the main characters. Think Goonies) you’ll love this movie. It’s genuinely scary in places, the danger is real, and the kids come to life almost directly from the pages of the book. I was a little worried when I saw that Freddy Highmore had been cast as the Grace twins. The kid is very British and these kids are very American and, frankly, Highmore seems almost like a lazy casting choice since he’s played a lot of major kid roles lately. What I forgot was that he gets these parts because he’s good. With one exception, his performance was flawless. The two characters he plays seem like two separate people. I found myself believing they’d discovered a heretofore unknown Highmore twin. The best performance, though, was by Irish actress Sarah Bolger as Mallory. She was perfect. Sarcastic, smart, and gutsy. The greatest moment in the movie was when she was whacking at invisible (to her, anyway) goblins and her brother throws her the stone ring that will allow her to see. The cinematography there was gorgeous, the moment perfect. I would even say that I liked Bolger’s Mallory even more than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger. Yes, I said it. It’s probably the sword.
The CGI is pretty good. There are just a very few moments when you are really aware of the fact that it is, indeed CGI. Most of there involve the Griffin. What is does well is make what is essentially a collection of dandelion fluff seem actually scary. The characters that are mostly CGI, like the villain, Mulgarath, and Hogsqueal, interact well with the human players.
This was a series of books with a lot of heart, about a family in crisis trying to find a way to stick together as they put together a new life for themselves. That remains the core of this movie.
What doesn’t: I am someone who appreciates movies who have great, iconic scores. This could have been one of them, but the score, by the usually excellent James Horner, just seems kind of bland. It provides atmosphere, but there is no real memorable moment here. And my one complaint about Highmore … he does affect an American accent pretty well, but there are times that it seems like just that. An affected accent. I got used to it. Bolger has no such problems.
Bottom line: This is a wonderful film I’m sure we’ll be getting on DVD the day it comes out. Much, much better than recent films like The Golden Compass and The Seeker. Plus, it’s got the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie at the beginning, so you really can’t lose.