The Spiderwick Chronicles Review

We daren’t go a-hunting…for fear of little men!

The Grace family are moving home. Mrs Grace (Mary Louise Parker) hopes to have left all their problems back in New York…the broken marriage, the petty arguments and son Jared’s tendency towards brawling in school. Arriving late at night and with the moon high in the sky, Mrs Grace gazes at her new home with a look as miserable as the house itself. Her children, Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) are no happier. Things get much worse on entering the house. Only Jared remains outside, not saying a word but striking at the back of the car with a stick found nearby. His old habit of turning to quickly to violence seems to have arrived at their new home with them.
Within their new home, Jared and Simon look at the rows of fresh tomato sauce and honey stored in the larder. Behind the wall, they hear a scuttling noise and, perhaps showing a little too much force, Jared has soon broken through the plasterboard to find a collection of knickknacks and trinkets, Mallory’s fencing medal amongst them. They seem to have been put together by some animal that lives within the wall cavity. Better yet, though, is the dumb waiter that he finds elsewhere in the house. Climbing into it, Jared finds himself in a secret room within the house, the hidden study of Arthur Spiderwick. In a chest there, Jared finds a book, Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You with a note warning him not to read it. But Jared does so anyway and soon finds himself and his family in grave danger as the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), who wants the field guide for himself, plans an attack on the Grace family home. No amount of tomato sauce will save them then.

Children aged about seven or eight could do very much worse than read the five books that make up The Spiderwick Chronicles, all written by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. These five slim books make up the whole story of The Spiderwick Chronicles and remain, unlike the always-getting-bigger books of the Harry Potter series, short little novels throughout. An adult, even one reading at quite a leisurely pace, could read each of the books in three-quarters of an hour or less while even a child moving off picture books to proper novels could make their way through each book over a couple of nights. While there are moments that are surprisingly nasty for children’s books – including Jared pulling a knife on another boy in school – there is also the story of a family coming together to save one another and of Jared Grace, a very troubled boy as the books begin, finding himself doing the right things to save his brother, sister, parents and the old aunt that he had always known as his mad Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright).
No matter how short these books are, all five together would still make for a film that would rival Titanic or any one of the Lord Of The Rings films for testing an audience’s patience. Wisely, the producers of this film have been somewhat ruthless with the books. Book Four of The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Ironwood Tree, is missing completely, while Books Two and Three have been trimmed and lopped to fit the film. Only Book One seems to have made it to the film largely intact while the dragon of Book Five and the daring raid on Mulgarath’s castle have been rewritten such that the ogre and his army of goblins attack the Spiderwick home. Perhaps this loses the sense of adventure that is often present in the books but one can’t really complain about this so long as the producers, writer John Sayles amongst them, realise that film and books are different and while Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s books may not make for a natural fit on the screen, so long as the film itself does.

On the whole, the film does work fairly well. As one familiar with the books – reading them at the same time as my eight-year-old daughter, they were a mild distraction from the proper literature that I was make my way through at the time – it’s easy to look past what’s been cut from the books in order to help the structure of the film. Does it matter that the dwarves and their metal dog are no longer in The Spiderwick Chronicles? Or that the river troll no longer threatens Jared and Mallory on their way to the goblin camp? Probably not as the film finds time for a sewer troll to chase Jared and Mallory on their way to meet Aunt Lucinda while the film does at least keep many of the characters and creatures from the book as well as finding a similar tone to the fantastical elements of the stories.
More to the point is that The Spiderwick Chronicles is an exciting, funny and thrilling film for an audience who already have some rich pickings from recent years. Older children may notice that Freddie Highmore, as good a young actor as he is, does sometimes appear as though he’s talking to no one in particular due to his post-production appearances as both Jared and Simon. That same part of the audience may find the CG creatures a little distracting – on the whole they’re very good but Mulgarath is a less rubbery variant on the Scrappy Doo monster of Scooby Doo – but what’s missed more is the sense of how peculiar things are around the Spiderwick mansion as well as how unpleasant they become, both of which were a good deal more evident in the books. The film, on the whole, takes a lighter tone but there are still moments when the real world butts into that of fantasy. In spite of some criticism of Highmore’s acting against himself, he still does very well at capturing the emotions of a child whose parents have recently divorced. His phone call to his father may be the most painful scene in the film, although moreso for parents than to children. This may be John Sayles’ influence on the film but it’s more than welcome, turning what might have been a very childish film into a decent, if sometimes modest, family movie.

Anamorphically presented in 2.35:1, The Spiderwick Chronicles looks very good, often much better than one would expect from a children’s movie. For a fantasy film, it errs on the side of the colourful, far away from the browns and blacks of the Conan films or Krull with the picture looking bright, sharp and very impressive throughout. As a comparison, largely due to its setting in New England in the fall, it is much better than Roxy Hunter And The Mystery Of The Moody Ghost and though the CG effects do leave certain scenes looking softer than others, particularly those in which goblins run riot over the screen or when Mulgarath begins his attack on the Spiderwick estate, the film is a very good watch.
The DD5.1 is, though, a little less impressive. There are moments when it shines, particularly earlier in the film when Thimbletack is creeping around behind the walls or when the still-unseen goblins are stalking the estate but when things become seen by Mallory, Jared and Simon, the soundtrack simply gets down to the thumps, growls and the clash of swords that are more typical of an action film. Then, there is less use of the rear channels for effect and while the dialogue and action is still apparent, it just sounds rather run-of-the-mill. Finally, there are both English and English HOH subtitles.

There isn’t very much on this DVD that would entice the viewer to dip into the special features. The first Spiderwick: It’s All True (7m06s) features director Mark Waters explaining the various creatures in Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You and why one should be wary of them. Viewers on this side of the Atlantic may wonder, though, just what to-may-to sauce is and how to get some should they ever be threatened by a goblin. It’s A Spiderwick World (8m46s) is a look behind what inspired the books, the single letter from the Grace children that opened each of the books, which claimed the events therein were indeed all true.

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide is a series of images taken from the book featured in the film in which the adventurer detailed each of the fantastical creatures. Through hyperlinks, one can read about griffins, ogres, brownies, goblins and how to protect oneself from magical creatures. Finally, the Field Guide In-Movie Mode is a feature that plays out at certain times during the film, albeit that it only offers a link to the pages of Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jul 10, 2008

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