Movie News & Reviews

"The Spiderwick Chronicles" enjoyable for young and old

As far as fantasy books and movies go, the ones where there's somekind of secret world hidden inside our own are really much weirderthan the ones full of elves and dwarves or where everyone's a talkingtoaster or whatever.

Like, there's a lot of wilderness left in the world, but when a townstarts encroaching on fairyland, do the gnomes and sprites just loadup their toadstool homes on the backs of their pack-mice and head offfor a deeper part of the woods? Are we stepping on them all the timewithout noticing? Do they get upset about that?

The evil ones must devote their existence to killing and/or enslaving all the others. Guys like that can't take well to all our land-grabbing. Nodoubt the orcs and imps and such are declaring war on humanity all thetime, and we just don't notice. They're probably so grumpy in thefirst place because for all their big bad plans they can't do anythingworse to us than steal our car keys or make us wake up with a rash.

Hell, the "evil" goblins in movies like The SpiderwickChronicles are probably freedom fighters, heroically sacrificingthemselves to resist mankind's constant outward push to pave overtheir glens and warrens. We always win, so we get to write thehistory, to paint them as singleminded brutes and murderers. Butnobody can be that evil. Some day, the truth will come tolight, and it won't be pretty.

In The Spiderwick Chronicles it isn't long after a singlemother and her three kids move into their great-great-uncle DavidStrathairn's spooky country house that young and angry FreddieHighmore starts hearing noises in the walls. His mom thinks he's justacting out, but his investigations reveal strange things: a cache ofstolen trinkets hidden in the wall, and upstairs, in a dusty old lab,a book with a warning on it saying it mustn't be read.

Which of course means Highmore opens it immediately. Notes and loregathered over the course of Straithairn's life, it claims thatfairies, goblins, and other magical beings are real, hidden from oursight, and the book can show you how to see them.

But the book's got darker secrets, too -- secrets that, if they fellinto the hands of the evil ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte),could be used to destroy all the world's other creatures. Killingeverything being the chief hobby of evil ogres everywhere, he'll doanything to get his hands on it. Aided by his bookish twin brother(also played by Highmore), tough older sister Sarah Bolger, ahouse-brownie, and a hobgoblin, Highmore has to find a way to keep thebook safe from Mulgarath and his army of goblin henchmen.

Based on a young adult book series, The Spiderwick Chroniclesis tilted more towards younger viewers, but its smart dialogue andsturdy pacing should work OK for adults, too. Occasionally I foundthe screeching and intended-to-be-comic carrying-on of some of the CGcreatures exasperating -- Lord knows how they stayed hidden all theseyears when they're yelling loud enough to deafen a boulder -- but someof that's just me, and I have the feeling their performances mightplay well for kids without condescending to them.

It's a self-contained story, too, which is a rarity in these days ofserialized fantasy movies. Kidsploitation's been going on since wemade the switch from eggs to live young, but it's refreshing to see amovie with magic and junk where the ending is actually the ending andnot a bridge leading to another $9 of your money in their pockets nextyear.

Though in the case of The Spiderwick Chronicles, the notion ofa sequel wouldn't turn my heart to thoughts of Hollywood murder.Writers Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berebaum write kids well and theirdialogue is distinctive without being distracting. Director MarkWaters puts together energetic action sequences, lively (if a bitcartoonish) CG, and, in a particularly impressive touch, drums up sometension even before the made-up imagination-creatures make theirentrance.

For all that, I can't help but feel The Spiderwick Chroniclesis a little light. We never see how Mulgarath and his goblin goonsquad are going to commit pixie genocide. We just hear a lot abouttheir plans to do so; without something concrete to really put thefear of bloodthirsty monsters into us, there are times when you mightwonder what all the fuss is about. Too, its emotional conclusionsstrike the right notes, they just seem too easy. As a movie aboutsmall things, though, it succeeds in a lot of small ways.

Grade: B