The Spiderwick Chronicles
Review by Jack Foley
FAMILY films adapted from children’s fantasy novels haven’t fared too well lately, given the lacklustre nature of The Golden Compass and the massive disappointment of The Dark Is Rising.
The Spiderwick Chronicles bucks that trend by emerging as a hugely enjoyable family adventure that benefits from a terrific cast, a clever director and a darker than average outlook.
When their mother ups sticks and moves to a run-down country house owned by one of their long-lost relatives, twins Simon and Jared Grace (both played by Freddie Highmore) and elder sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) discover a field guide to a fantasy world occupied by fairies and goblins.
But after opening the book and exposing its secrets, the children find themselves targeted by a particularly nasty ogre (Nick Nolte), who wants the guide for himself and must subsequently overcome their petty differences to save both the fantasy world and, possibly, their own.
Drawing from elements of all five books in the series by Holly Black and Tony Di Terlizzi, Mark Waters’ film avoids feeling like an opening chapter that’s designed to set up a franchise and sets about entertaining on its own merits instead.
As a result, the story is much more engaging and moves along at a cracking pace, offering a set of characters (both human and fantastical) that are fully developed as well as some suitably impressive special effects.
Waters, whose previous hits include Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, proves himself adept at mixing some genuine pre-teen scares with some light-hearted scenarios and includes some observations on the power of imagination and the importance of family that are intelligent without being heavy-handed.
Of the cast, Freddie Highmore stands out in the dual role of Simon and Jared (complete with flawless American accent), ensuring that both have very distinct character traits. But watch out, too, for strong supporting performances from Mary Louise Parker, as Jared’s anguished mum, David Strathairn, as field guide author Arthur Spiderwick, and strong vocal turns from Nick Nolte and Seth Rogen as two fantasy characters.
Fans of past fantasy favourites such as Harry Potter, Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia may recognise some of Spiderwick’s more familiar genre elements but even then Waters stays careful to avoid too many clichés, instead drawing on the elements that made them appeal in the first place. And if he can’t quite avoid a slightly prolonged and overly sentimental conclusion, he at least has the good grace to wrap things up without feeling the need to signpost a possible sequel.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is therefore a thoroughly engaging entry into the children’s fantasy bracket that actually outperforms some of its more illustrious competitors (Narnia, Golden Compass etc) in terms of its ability to provide all-round entertainment.
Running time: 96mins
UK DVD Release: July 14, 2008