By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published February 28, 2008
“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is an adventure movie that is sure to entertain a wide audience. When the Grace family moves to a creepy old house with a strange history, the children discover a magical world filled with fantastic creatures—and they also discover their own heroism, bravery and cleverness, all of which they need to survive in that world.
Young twins Jared and Simon Grace and their older sister, Mallory, are not exactly thrilled to be leaving their old life in New York behind. Jared is especially upset, blaming his mother for the move and his parents’ separation and pleading to go live with his father. Obviously at odds with the rest of his family, Jared acts out in anger and suspicion, and when the rest of the family blames him for some odd occurrences in the house, his alienation only deepens.
Soon, however, Jared’s exploration of his new home convinces him that the strange old house is inhabited by more creatures than just the family cat. He discovers a powerful book, the “Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You,” written by Arthur Spiderwick, his mysterious great-uncle and the former owner of the house. Soon Jared becomes a part of a hidden world, caught up in a struggle to keep the book from Mulgarath, an evil ogre, and his army of goblins. Simon and Mallory are soon dragged into the fight as well, and the three siblings must band together to save themselves, their home and all of the magical creatures from destruction.
Based on the popular series of books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi and directed by Mark Waters, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” masterfully creates a world in which goblins, brownies and fairies exist alongside humans. The effects are terrific and the computer-generated creatures are stunning. From the simple conversations with Thimbletack, the brownie of the house, to the complicated final battle with Mulgarath and the goblins, the interactions between humans and creatures are seamless.
The young actors also do an excellent job at creating a complex family. Freddie Highmore is especially effective as he creates two distinct characters. As Jared, he shows how the boy’s combativeness and defensiveness masks a deep hurt and confusion. Later, Jared gets the chance to shine as a cunning and decisive leader. Highmore shows Jared’s twin, Simon, as a more thoughtful and serious boy who is more in control of his feelings. Highmore’s inflections and even his looks subtly shade two very different portrayals. Sarah Bolger matches Highmore’s quality by portraying Mallory with a fierce strength. She is not a person to back down from a challenge. In the course of the movie, the siblings go from bickering among themselves to banding together and defending each other. It is a positive message that when the family is endangered, they all work together and decide to do what is right, even when presented with a seemingly easy way out in the face of great danger.
The only weak link in the family seems to be the mother, Helen, played by Mary-Louise Parker. The problem is partly in how the character is written. Helen is distant and distracted, worn down by upheavals of her own. Her problems with Jared clearly have a long history, as evidenced by her weary reaction to his outbursts and her inability to believe him when he says he is not responsible for the strange happenings in the house. The character’s distance is compounded by Parker’s laid-back portrayal. Sister Mallory seems to be more of a strong maternal figure to the boys, and she is more knowledgeable and in more control than the mother. This detachment between parent and child is echoed in a subplot involving the long-lost Arthur Spiderwick and his daughter Lucy. In the end, however, all is resolved, and the families are reunited and strengthened.
“The Spiderwick Chronicles” has much to recommend it. Strong themes of family loyalty, strength and bravery are a part of a strong story that is also entertaining and exciting.
According to the review from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the film contains some fantasy violence and a couple of mild oaths. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-I—general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.